Tea and Sympathy
Finborough Theatre In rep Autumn 2006
Two plays with similar settings and structures share the additional parallel of having both been denied first productions by the British censors for their at-the-time shocking acknowledgement of adolescent sexuality.
In a joint revival by this ambitious and accomplished pub theatre, they both prove well worth the seeing, as historical documents and on their own dramatic merits.
Young Woodley, written in 1925 by the British John van Druten, and Tea and Sympathy (1953) by American Robert Anderson are both set in boys' schools, where sensitive and confused adolescents are taunted by their peers, mistreated by their masters, and comforted by a sympathetic master's wife.
In van Druten's play the boy is an overly sentimental lad who fancies himself in love with the older woman; in Anderson's his failure to fit stereotypes of manliness has him labelled 'queer' and 'fairy' until he begins to doubt his sexuality.
While the similarities between the two plays are striking - in addition to the settings, both wives are unhappy, both boys' fathers are involved, both build secondary plot turns on visits to the village tramp – they are different in focus and purpose.
Van Druten's play is about the difficulty of love in a cruel world (almost a Tennessee Williams theme), with the husband-teacher's fault one of coldness and insensitivity - his remedy for any adolescent angst is discipline and immersion in games.
Anderson's drama is directly about homophobia - the teacher's hatred of the boy is a projection of his own confused sexuality - and while Anderson's solution in having the wife offer herself to the boy so he can prove his 'normality' to himself may no longer be politically correct, it is quite touching in context.
(I'm not really giving anything away there. The last line of Anderson's play - 'Years from now, when you talk about this - and you will - be kind' - is one of the icons of American drama, as frequently cited (and parodied) as 'I have always depended on the kindness of strangers'.)
Seen together, as you can on alternate nights and the occasional full day, Tea and Sympathy proves the stronger play, even if paradoxically it has dated more - such is the current climate that a master's wife drawn toward falling in love with a student as van Druten's does would be in more trouble than a boy who might be gay.
Both offer strong acting roles, and the opportunity here to see the same cast in both plays (generally in different roles, a bit player in one taking the lead in the other) is an additional inducement.
In both plays the actors playing the troubled boys shine strongest. Robin Chalk as Woodley shows us all the ridiculousness of a melodramatic adolescent secretly enjoying his own romantic misery, without ever making the character ridiculous or losing our sympathy.
In the Anderson play James Joyce sensitively captures the boy's confusion and misery and sensibly doesn't make the fatal mistake that others in the role have, of playing him too fey.
In a couple of cases the cross-casting backfires slightly. The vague sense that Joanna Croll is giving too external and unfelt a performance as the wife in van Druten's play is reinforced when she overacts her small role in Tea and Sympathy to cartoonish dimensions.
Meanwhile, if you happen to see the Anderson first, and find Laura Main's performance as the wife particularly moving, you will be disappointed by how thoroughly she is wasted as a maid in the other play.
And Andrew Cuthbert, who makes the boy's father strikingly sympathetic and sensible in the earlier play, is simply miscast as the husband in the Anderson, who needs to be a younger man for the play to make much sense.
Both plays are ones that the theatre buff will have heard of and probably never had the opportunity to see, and so this joint revival will be attractive if only for the chance to fill in the gaps. And, overall, director Adam Penroth delivers almost as successful a pair of productions as you could ask for.
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Review of Young Woodley and Tea And Sympathy - Finborough Theatre 2006