Saturday, 24 August 2013

Not by the book

How do you review a play based on a book? Particularly the first dramatic rendering of a book that has iconic status among the few people who are aware of its existence? Do you pretend you've never read the novel and review the play as it is represented? Or do you mentally compare the two as the play progresses?

Sandel, by Angus Stewart, was a 1968 novel published about the love affair between a 19 year old and 14 year old (both male) in Oxford. Although strictly speaking about boy-love, the romance nevertheless resonated with many young gay men like myself, who saw ourselves reclining on college swards on summer afternoons with handsome partners, thrilled as much by the enforced secrecy of our passion as by the passion itself.

Ryan Penny as David Rogers
and Tom Cawte as Antony Sandel
Take that story, describe it as gay Lolita, add in a promising Times review by Libby Purves and you have a recipe for success. Intrigued therefore, I bought my ticket and joined the end of the long queue. And there my doubts began. I was confronted by the poster for the production which showed, not a handsome 14 year old, but an undoubtedly older figure who was no more blessed with good looks than I am.

Ok, I thought, on that point the play can diverge from the novel. After all, love does not flourish on looks alone. Personality counts. And if Tom Cawte can portray all the complex emotions and behaviour of a 14 year old falling head over heels in love with a 19 year old, I will happily suspend disbelief.

So can Cawte play the part of a fascinating, adorable, lovable 14 year old? I have no idea, because in Glenn Chandler's one-dimensional adaptation, Tony Sandel comes across as a hyper-active brat who deserves not so much his partner's devotion as regular doses of Ritalin. He is less an object of love than a whirlwind of exasperation who cannot stop talking, running around and irritating the youth he is supposed to seduce.

On the plus side, for most of the play Chandler's script remains true to the novel and retains much of the original dialogue and from time to time there are glimpses of what might be love between the two principals. Unfortunately, the playwright's heavy-handed direction insists on Tony and David incessantly and breathlessly running around the stage in the never-ending search for laughs, with the result that what could and should be a moving, deep romance is obscured by easy comedy and near farce.

This is not surprising, since previous works of Chandler's that I have seen - Boys of the Empire and the misnamed but still enjoyable Scouts in Bondage - have been fun and entertaining take-offs of the Boys' Own Paper and Scouting for Boys approach to boyhood. But such an approach is fatal for Sandel and reveals that Chandler has little understanding either of deeper human emotions or of the stagecraft necessary to depict those emotions. That weakness is underlined by his rewriting of the play's ending, which offers us cliche rather than poignancy and betrays both the novel and audience.

The depiction of love depends on the gradual unfolding of the lovers' characters and of glimpses of the inner beauty and mystery that attracts each to the other. It depends on quiet moments that allow both the individuals on the stage and the audience watching to reflect on what they see. It depends on subtle gestures and expressions that allow us to intuit ideas and emotions without words. But under Chandler's direction these two lovers never stop speaking and shouting at each other, as he encourages the audience to laugh at them rather than empathise with them. At only one point in the play does Chandler understand the value of silence - and it is then that Sandel briefly reaches into our souls. But the moment is quickly disposed of and the banter returns, reminding us that we are being offered laughter not love, caricatures not portraits, superficiality not depth.

Tom Cawte may be a good actor, but he is the wrong for the part and Chandler's direction destroys rather than creates the key role in this production. Ryan Penny comes closest to offering a rounded performance, but Chandler never lets him develop his character. I hope he soon finds a director more worthy of his talents. Calum Fleming's Bruce Lang wandered in from a sub-Oscar Wilde comedy; instead of gravitas, he gave us camp. The set, by Will Hunter, was effective.

The audience saw a comedy and laughed. Angus Stewart must be turning in his grave. Two stars out of a possible five.

Until 24 August, Surgeons Hall (venue 53), 16.05
Tom Cawte: Antony Sandel
Calum Fleming: Bruce Lang
Ryan Penny: David Rogers
Adapted from the novel by Angus Stewart and directed by Glenn Chandler

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this review. You've persuaded me to give the book a go. It does sound sadly predictable that the author felt the need to "write down" to a modern middle-class audience who wouldn't have been able to cope with the material, and so made a work of emotional depth into a comedy.