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The Happiest Days Of Your Life

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Cracking Family Comedy - chaos, cross-dressing - jolly hockey sticks!

Perhaps  the first thing to say about John Dighton’s play The Happiest Days of Your Life is how much fun it remains more than 60 years after its creation. A boys’ school finds itself forced, with virtually no notice, to house the staff and pupils of St Swithin’s – a girls’ school, whose buildings were flattened in the Second World War. Cue petty arguments and naughty tricks between the sexes, romantic attachments and good old fashioned comic farce, especially when one set of boys’ parents and one set of girls’ parents turn up, and every attempt is made to keep them in the dark.

So far, so St Trinian’s, you may be thinking. Yes and no. The play in fact precedes the St Trinian’s films. The film version of The Happiest Days of your Life was a great hit in 1950, starring Alastair Sim, Margaret Rutherford and Joyce Grenfell amongst others, and out of this success came the St Trinian’s films (I remember loving them as a boy), in which both Sim and Grenfell again starred.

The Studio Theatre Club have done a fine job in bringing the play to life in the Unicorn Theatre in Abingdon. The limited stage space was occasionally just a bit too tight for the mad-cap goings on, but despite this the cast caused lots of laughter amongst the audience, and the comic timing was often excellent. The main performers were uniformly good, with my personal favourites being Holly Bathie as Miss Gossage, the jolly hockey sticks teacher who inevitably falls for disconcerted bachelor Mr Billings (equally impressively played by Dan Bond), and  Rainbow (Tom Fenton), porter, groundsman, and general dogsbody who spends most of the evening being told to do one thing and then reverse what he’s just done. 

There are plenty of good lines for the cast to make merry with. ‘It plays havoc with my grammar’ says the bewildered headmaster. ‘He went off very suddenly,’ said of an absent Mr Gun.  And ‘what a load of tapioca!’ which sounds authentically 1950s schoolgirl to my male ear. So go along to the lovely old Abbey building in the oldest town in the country (that is the claim on the Abbey walls), and enjoy the fun! 

Peter Tickler (DI Reviewer), 24/05/12

It is 1948. The war is over and things are slowly returning to normal, but some difficulties remain. What do you do with 50 pupils and their teachers when their school buildings have been flattened by enemy bombers? Simple: you find a school with its buildings still intact and force them to share. But what if, thanks to a civil service mix-up, a highly exclusive girls’ school is forced to share with an equally exclusive boys’ school? Cue furious teachers, disruptive pupils, and outraged parents.

I have to confess I’m no fan of farce, but the Studio Theatre Club’s fast-paced and very funny production of John Dighton’s witty play finds me warming to it. Director Edward Roberts keeps the action moving, with the obligatory comings and goings neatly choreographed – a miracle of engineering on the Unicorn Theatre’s tiny stage. To carry off farce with any degree of success it is also essential to have strong performances, and Roberts has assembled a tight-knit cast who work well together. This is particularly true of the six teachers who are the core of the play, as they struggle manfully (and, of course, womanfully) with the shenanigans taking place around them. While some of the ‘BBC English’ accents are a little strained at times, particularly in the faster-moving parts of the play, the cast do an excellent job of transporting the audience back to the 1940s, essential when the action is driven by social mores very different to those of today.

All in all, The Happiest Days Of Your Life is a far better class of farce than the trouser-dropping, vicars-and-tarts excesses of the genre, and the Studio Theatre Club’s production is well worth seeing.

Robin Derbyshire (DI User), 24/05/12

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