You don’t expect to find a slice of Eton College in deepest Dalston, but tonight a distinctly posh Waiting for Godot opens at the Arcola Theatre. The Beckett play is being directed by Eton’s former head of theatre, Simon Dormandy, and his Vladimir and Estragon are Tom Palmer and Tom Stourton, two of his past pupils. Together Palmer and Stourton (son of BBC’s Ed) are sketch comedy duo Totally Tom – perfect casting for Dormandy’s ‘reimagined’ production of the play, with its frequent references to music hall, the artform Beckett so loved.
Dormandy, an actor as well as a director, has worked with Cheek by Jowl and the Royal Shakespeare Company and taught at Eton 1997-2012; former pupils with successful acting careers include Tom Hiddleston (recently an acclaimed Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse), Eddie Redmayne (Marius in the Oscar-nominated Les Misérables), Harry Lloyd (BBC’s Robin Hood), Henry Faber (BBC’s The Hollow Crown), Julian Ovendon (Downton Abbey) and Harry Hadden-Paton (godson of Sarah, Duchess of York, who received rave reviews in his National Theatre debut in She Stoops to Conquer).
But even before Dormandy joined the Berkshire school, its drama department was attracting attention, having produced previous generations of acclaimed actors including Hugh Laurie, Dominic West and Damian Lewis, all of whom have achieved huge success in major American TV dramas – House, The Wire and Homeland, respectively. As Eton’s head master, Tony Little, quipped: ‘When HBO want a gritty, hard-bitten, authentically American character to head up a mini-series, they instinctively think: Old Etonian.’
Hailz-Emily Osborne, the current director of drama at Eton, is overseeing the next crop of talent, and says we should expect to hear about more OEs winning plaudits in theatre and film very soon. Such is the school’s record in developing young actors that some in the theatre industry say it’s in the same bracket as drama schools such as RADA or Central – so much so that in recent years agents and producers looking to sign the next Dominic West or Tom Hiddleston have inveigled themselves into productions normally staged just for pupils and parents.
During his time at Eton, Dormandy also occasionally invited agents to see work at the college, but I understand that since his departure this practice has stopped as the college believes the boys are too young to be thrust into the professional spotlight.
Most schools, whether in the state or independent sectors, must look with envy at Eton’s facilities; a 400-seat state-of-the-art theatre and studios spaces, a full-time designer, a carpenter and a manager, as well as a part-time wardrobe mistress and a director-in-residence who oversee several productions each term, as well as taking a company to the Edinburgh Fringe each year. This professional set-up must help in developing young talent, so it’s surely no surprise that so many talented young actors first trod the boards at Eton.
But who knows if it’s the talent driving the enterprise, or vice versa; as leftie comic Alexei Sayle waspishly observed (even if did confuse an Old Harrovian for an OE): ‘Benedict Cumberbatch is a wonderful actor, but if my cat had the facilities he had at Eton, my cat could be in Sherlock.’
Waiting For Godot is at the Arcola Theatre, London E8, from 7 May to 14 June
Veronica Lee is an award-winning writer and critic who contributes on theatre and comedy to the Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph, Observer and London Evening Standard.