Latin! or Tobacco and Boys
by Stephen Fry

Burton-Taylor Theatre, 22-26 May 2001

"Pleasure", sighs our hero Dominic Clarke, "lies between the thighs of a young boy", and what a pleasure this is. Audience members are put in detention for lateness, exercise books are hurled and classroom innuendoes abound from the moment Latin! begins. Such lines as, "Boys who rub me up the wrong way come to a sticky end," seem unpromising on paper, yet Nick Gill (as Clarke) plays the role of pederastic Latin master with superb timing and style. Somewhat reminiscent of a Joyce Grenfell monologue, a class full of invisible boys is made believable by Gill: Figgis with his contact lenses, Smethwick with his, well, 'ooze', and Cartwright. Ah, yes, Cartwright, with his "large, curiously blue" eyes - and his fully violated 13-year-old body.

For this is, ostensibly at least, a play about a man who loves boys. For Stephen Fry fans this is hardly a new tale, although this is perhaps the comedian's earliest rendition of it. As in The Liar, and the autobiographical Moab is my Washpot, Fry takes as his muse a boy he fell in love with whilst at Uppingham. Clarke is clearly Fry; Cartwright, once again, the name he gives his young love.

The relationship between the two is discovered by Herbert Brookshaw, one of the longest serving members of staff at Chartham Park School, where the play is set. Leander Deeny impressively portrays this aged, peculiar character - his explanation of the 'merit system' at Chartham Park reducing much of the audience to helpless laughter. In return for not revealing the tryst he asks Clarke to perform a couple of "odd jobs", most memorable of which is the request that Brookshaw be beaten, every Tuesday and Thursday, "for about half an hour". With, it goes on, a coat hanger or a wet towel. "And don't forget the peanut butter."

Yet there is more to this than mere paedophilia and buggery, for Clarke describes himself as "a sensitive in a land of literary rugby players". A man unsatisfied with his lot, who never wanted to stop being a boy. "You are gross and deformed" he tells Brookshaw; "I just misbehave occasionally". Clarke is Oscar Wilde to Cartwright's Bosie, and whatever the comedic use, this illegal relationship is never condemned. Fry, it seems, will not apologise for love.

Latin! won awards at its first performance, and this production, by Josie Long and Sam Freedman, does it full credit. A triumph of comedy genius, this is Stephen Fry at his very best.

Rebecca Smith