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Review Now We Are Sixty by Gyles Brandreth, music by Julian Slade

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on Friday, 27 September 2013
Now We Are Sixty by Gyles Brandreth, music by Julian Slade

The King's Head Theatre,115 Upper Street, Islington, London, N1 1QN – this has closed but is likely to tour.

Web site http://www.kingsheadtheatre.com/   

 4 stars

This rare revival and London premiere of this ‘play with music’ about the life of A.A.Milne, the creator of Winnie-the-Poo, has so much going for it that I was rather surprised the run was so short. Milne wrote a book of poems called Now We Are Six which is alluded to in the title. I only hope it is revived again, preferably with the same cast and goes on to tour, as it is something of a lost gem of British musicals. Julian Slade’s setting of Milne’s poems is also impressive and very tuneful – although there are no instantly hummable songs – and the songs were delivered with gusto and flair by the cast.

Although the essential plot line is an autobiographical one, in which the notoriously reclusive and secretive Milne, now sixty years old, discusses his life and lengthy career with a young undergraduate who has come to interview him; this musical shows Milne as a surprisingly complex character and in so doing details much about the oddity of the life of the British middle classes during the first half of the twentieth century.

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Fig 1.A scene from Now We are Sixty: (L to R) Russell Grant  (John)James Bentham - (Thomas)Charlotte Page -(Daphne Milne). Photo: Gareth McLeod

Andrew C. Wadsworth’s Milne is at once a dignified, charming  and troubled figure– in part because he feels that his entire writing career has been overshadowed by the success of Winnie and is resentful that these four books define him forever, in part because of the difficulties of world war one and the society he lives in. After the war’s extreme horrors he becomes a determined pacifist for example. There are also tense relationships with his somewhat overbearing father and especially his son, Christopher Robin, who claimed that Milne ‘built his reputation by standing on a small boy's shoulders'. Ironically Milne was not a particular fan of children, rather like Roald Dahl.  As well as a writer of light verse, Milne was deputy editor of the magazine Punch, a humourous columnist , a prolific and commercially successful playwright in a range of popular genres. The cast acts out a number of stories from Punch that show Milne’s observational comedy at work and these are admirably brought to life by the cast: Russell Grant’s version of a soliloquy from Hamlet reminded me of Eric Morecambe and almost brought the house down, while Meghan Rayner’s lisping Celia was wonderfully silly and Charlotte Page showed her range, creating a sexy sophisticate with an acid sense of humour.

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Martin Milnes’ direction was crisp and manages successfully to build a fast-paced sense of momentum , as moments from the past and various imaginary characters arise from Milne’s reflections to sing songs based on Milne’s poetry or act out scenes from his life and stories– it’s a trustworthy dramatic device which writer Brandreth has used here to memorable effect. James Church has done a fine job with directing the music and producing the lively accompaniment and the songs manage to be both clear and to catch the nonsense-like rhythms of Milne’s light verse. There is some excellent singing from Charlotte Page as Daphne Milne, Russell Grant as John and Phillip Lee as Ken and the style often first the tiem of writing, reminding one of of 1920s and 1930s musical reviews. Newcomer Steffan Wayne, just 10 years old, as Christopher Robin contributes some fine work and singing in making his debut on the stage. Bearing in mind the importance of A.A. Milne as a kind of national cultural monument to childhood,  I’m surprised this alluring piece hasn’t been revived previously and it would make a perfect piece at literary festivals during the season, a light-hearted musical that still sends the audience home thinking.

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