Public school for scandal

Another Country | Arts Theatre, London

Tom Wisdom is one of those good-looking actors who, though heterosexual, frequently gets cast as gay. Even on
Coronation Street - which is, let's face it, scarcely the drill hall - he played a hairdresser. Notwithstanding that career pattern, he is an intriguing choice to fill the shoes that were sported 20 years ago by Rupert Everett in this first-rate revival of the Julian Mitchell play,
Another Country.

Tom Wisdom is one of those good-looking actors who, though heterosexual, frequently gets cast as gay. Even on Coronation Street - which is, let's face it, scarcely the drill hall - he played a hairdresser. Notwithstanding that career pattern, he is an intriguing choice to fill the shoes that were sported 20 years ago by Rupert Everett in this first-rate revival of the Julian Mitchell play, Another Country.

Wisdom takes on the role of Guy Bennett, a homosexual sixth-former at public school in the 1930s. He is a boy who dares to let love speak its name, when all around him - in the wake of a gay suicide - his former sex-partners are busily reinventing themselves as fully-paid-up straights.

Mitchell's powerful drama suggests that Bennett's future is formed by the experience of this hypocrisy and of the political horsetrading that results in his being barred from the exclusive "Twenty Two" club. What better way of joining and beating the opposition than becoming a double-agent for Moscow?

Any self-respecting gay or bisexual would certainly queue to be put into detention with Wisdom. But the appeal is a combination of his height and his fresh-faced, good-natured boyishness. Everett trolled around mischievously, dangling his precocious decadence like a carrot before donkeys.

Wisdom adopts a different approach. This is a Guy whose mouth can still fall open in winningly gleeful surprise at his own sophisticated sallies, and he makes us feel that there really is something idealistic in his love for the offstage Harcourt (whom he significantly refuses to betray), when he dances round the library to the strains of "Who Stole My Heart Away?", cheek-to-cheek with a bust of Lenin in a dizzy transport of romance.

Stephen Henry has clearly directed him in this way because he wants the long-term implications of Bennett's story to steal up on you very slowly. That's a good policy: the only trouble is that you can't imagine Wisdom's Guy ever turning into his outrageously disreputable namesake - the real-life Cambridge spy and Moscow exile, Guy Burgess.

Around this captivating central performance, the production is cast pretty much to perfection. The superb Ben Jeyes doesn't put a pawky syllable wrong as the school's Das Kapital-swotting tame communist. He has some lovely moments with William Green's homesick little fag, where Judd's instinct to comfort him as an individual and his desire to preach the cause to him, as though he were a public meeting, come into beautifully comic and touching conflict.

Staged with great fluency on a mobile, modular set that makes the school look like a very swanky top-security prison, the production ripples with just the right ambiguity.

At the hilarious tea party for Patrick Ryecraft's fruity uncle (of Devenish, played by a deliciously ill-at-ease and priggish Jamie de Courcey), you notice that even while this man of letters is enunciating his attractive doctrine of honest doubt, he is giving the glad eye in a lingering secret signal to the flattered Bennett.

The revival opened, ironically enough, on the day there was a news report that a male and a female pupil had been expelled for "a sex romp" at Lancing, the very school, notoriously, that more than 50 years ago sacked Evelyn Waugh's brother Alec for a spot of gay nookie - and paid for it in spades when he published his kiss-and-tell novel The Loom of Youth.

This is what I call progress. The fact that you can now be "immoral" on all fronts at public school and contrive to get banished for it surely augurs well for the nation's spiritual health.

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