Dir: Glenn Chandler
100 min • Above the Stag, London • Until June 14, 2014
Alex Jeffery reviews
Glenn Chandler’s adaptation of Angus Stewart’s cult novel arrives in London after a successful run in Edinburgh last year. Originally published in 1968, the story is now a period piece, it throws the audience matter-of-factly into 1960s Oxford where 19 year-old undergraduate David Rogers meets 13 year-old choirboy Antony Sandel and embarks on a love affair not unusual for the period.
The seductive charisma of Sandel in this portrayal is played as more bright and winning than overtly sexual. Ashley Cousins prances tirelessly around the stage like a preternatural hybrid of Charlotte Church and James Harries, and eventually gets to brandish his own precocious celebrity symbol: an LP of his choirboy recordings. As the intelligent but naïve Rogers, Joseph Lindoe forges the emotional heart of the piece with ease; Calum Fleming’s Bruce Lang, Rogers’ friend, is the dubiously Catholic moral compass and performance-wise perhaps the only weak link here, with a tendency to lace his barely controlled rage with too much archness. All three cast members are playing younger and Cousins at 16 is disarmingly convincing as Sandel. It is a relief to discover that his prepubescent looking physique is in fact of legal age, given the male sexual attention it is subjected to from the other two characters and the audience. Unfortunately though, neither of the two older roles can convincingly pull off eighteen, coming across more as young Oxford fellows than students, which perhaps unintentionally problematizes the age differences even further for the audience.
The question I felt burning in the air as the events unfolded seems to be “why now”? The play seems not to want to comment directly on the current climate of sexual abuse trials, arriving as it does at the outcomes of the Yewtree arrests, yet how can it not? The ‘p’ word bandied around conspicuously here is not ‘paedophilia’ but ‘pederasty’, here punningly twinned with ‘pedestal’ for laughs. The programme states that”‘the world of Sandel has as much to do with the Britain of 2014 as historic abuse cases have to do with the world of Sandel“, yet those who have come out of the private school system recently will likely feel that the residues of this supposedly lost world can still very much be felt. The estate of Angus Stewart were particularly concerned that the play wouldn’t be used as a mirror, but it would be naïve to deny that many glimmering reflections are inevitable.
There is absolutely no ambiguity surrounding Sandel’s role in the affair though. His self-confidence is pushed to the point of caricature, lest we worry that he is being taken advantage of. Although he may not be fully in control of his feelings, he is fully aware of his charismatic power and exploits it irrepressibly for his own ends. Yet we are reminded that, just as in the legally-sanctioned world of adult love affairs, relationship dynamics often require that two people are drawn together by very different mutual needs, where age may not be the determining factor. At heart this is very much a love story, not a morality tale, but serves as reminder that the law can never have the final word on the rights and wrongs of sexual relationships.