Monday, 22 December 2008

Boys of the Empire - Kings Head Theatre

Boys of the Empire by Glenn Chandler
Director: Patrick Wilde
Reviewer: Edward Gamlin

Christmas is a time for theatrical junk food - a month of panto and pastiche, of fairy tales and family plays for audiences to gorgethemselves on like tins of Quality Street and tea biscuits. While much of it is mindless fluff, occasionally somebody will slip in candied fruit: still sweet and indulgent but with a healthier item atthe core. Such is how I felt about Boys of the Empire. Take an old Public School pulp of the Boy's Own variety and mix in the sultanas of double entendre and candied peel of post-Imperial retrospective andsteam into a laugh out loud Christmas pudding of a play.

The 1930's are upon us, and Pyke (Christopher Birks) is new to elite St. Elthelred's, and being a bit of a wimpy sort finds himself on the wrong side of lipsy Jewish Ascher (Mark Farrelly) and half-Iraqi Kamal(Matthew Runham.) Fortunately he makes fast friends with dapper Overday (Alastair Mavor) and the duo find themselves on the wrong sideof the Iraqi resistance movement. Can they save the school from the Dark Circle without falling awry of Mr. Pratt or getting a beating from Morley in the sixth form?

True to genre, the story is broken into five instalments, complete with introductions and letters to an unnamed magazine editor (Terence Barton) and stereotypical adverts straight out of a comic book. Likewise the vices which hover over the boys: smoking, gambling,sneaking out at night, and all sorts of beastly behaviours.

Much of the humour in Glenn Chandler's script comes from wordplay between Pyke and Overday, mocking both the upper class use of language and the homosexual undertones (here blatant overtones) of Public School stories as a genre. The punch, however, comes from an examination of colonial era attitudes, and how they may not be as relegated to the past as we expect: a scene turning the nations of the Empire into a sunflower is particularly pointed, and an ongoing disdain for foreigners is both historically and contemporarily accurate.

Patrick Wilde's direction keeps the play rapidly moving, and the set -a mishmash of trunks and chairs - is effective in shifting locations around the school, the surrounding estate of eccentric Lord Bamberry (also Barton) and even the Iraqi desert. Special credit is also due to whomever compiled the free programme, a thorough Boy's Own parody, which is almost as funny as the play itself.

If one is looking for some Christmas fare on the more substantial and shorter side, the bouncing and brief Boys of the Empire is a great choice for those looking to sneak in a quick one-act between their family visits and last minute shopping.
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