★★★★ | Sandel, Above The Stag, London
First published in 1968, Angus Stewart’s novel, Sandel, about the love affair between a 13-year-old choirboy, Anthony Sandel and a 19-year-old undergraduate, David Rogers, was out of print for 40 years, its subject matter considered somehow more shocking in today’s world than it was in 1968. Throughout that time it had become something of a cult classic, until production of this stage adaptation by Glenn Chandler at the Edinburgh Festival precipitated its re-publication last year.
Maybe, it was deemed less shocking in those seemingly more innocent years. Indeed romantic attachments between young boys at public schools and at university were almost considered the norm. In Brideshead Revisited, Lord Marchmain’s Italian mistress Carla engages Charles Ryder in conversation when he and Sebastian are in Venice.
“I think you are very fond of Sebastian,” she said.
“I know of these romantic friendships of the English and the Germans. They are not Latin. I think they are very good if they do not go on too long.”
Presumably more acceptable back then, though of course Charles and Sebastian were of the same age (late teens). That said, frequently younger boys would form attachments to older boys at public school, and the age gap between Tony and David (6 years) is really not very much. When David takes Tony shopping for clothes, he poses as his elder brother, but one wonders whether the sales assistant, like most people at that time just turned a blind eye, assuming, like Carla, that this was just boys going through a phase they would grow out of.
Reading the novel through twenty-first-century eyes, I confess to finding the relationship a little disturbing, and, if various reviews on Goodreads are anything to go by, I am not the only one. That I found it much less disturbing At the Stag is down to the excellent adaptation by Glenn Chandler, who also directs a brilliantly paced and pitched production, and to the superb performances of young Ashley Cousins as Tony and Joseph Lindoe as David. We see both the maturity of the boy Tony and the immaturity of the man David, which makes the attraction altogether more understandable, not to mention palatable. It was a master stroke to cast Tony with a young actor (Cousins) who is only a couple of years older than the character he is playing. He does so with a knowing innocence, for it is Tony who makes all the running, Tony who seduces David. It is an extraordinarily mature performance from a young actor. Lindoe is equally convincing as David, at that awkward stage between adolescent and adult. Expected to be the adult in the relationship, he nevertheless displays a touching naivety. The chemistry and connection between the two actors was absolutely convincing.
The third character in the play is David’s best friend Bruce Lang, unrequitedly and secretly in love with David, who deals with his feelings by studying to become a Roman Catholic priest. His function is to act as David’s conscience, and, blessed with a sardonic, somewhat Wildean wit, he gets many of the best lines, ably delivered here by Calum Fleming, repeating his performance from the Edinburgh Fringe production.
If you like to be challenged, then you should make it post haste down to Vauxhall for this superb production, which runs at Above The Stag until June 14th