by Alan Bennett.

Oxford Playhouse Beaumont Street OX1 2LW To 19 June.
Mon-Thu; Sat 7.30pm Fri 8pm Mat Thu & Sat 2.30pm.
TICKETS: 01865 305305.

then Theatre Royal Nottingham Theatre Square NG1 5ND 21-26 June 2010.
Mon-Sat 7.30pm Mat Wed 2pm Sat 2.30pm.
TICKETS: 0115 989 5555.

Runs 2hr 45min One interval.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 14 June.

Alan sort-of pulls it off.
Its various qualities have brought praise, fame and a film of Alan Bennett’s 2004 play. Yet Christopher Luscombe’s lively tour from West Yorkshire Playhouse suggests it’s been over-rated. The action’s set in a single-sex Sheffield Grammar School in the 1980s, though there were no state Grammar Schools in Sheffield by then.

Had any existed, there seems little point setting a play back in the eighties without examining the educational changes the decade brought. But in this play there’s just the much-examined contrast between tutoring for exams (here post-A level Oxbridge entrance papers) and a broader approach to the world.

Yet the timing allows Bennett to align unconventional teacher Hector’s youth with the author’s, so George Formby and Gracie Fields can match the high art references by which intense moments are buttressed, with the extraordinary potency of cheap music in the song-and-dance numbers sprinkled through the action.

A play with twelve characters is unlikely to treat them all in depth. But Bennett explores few of the eight pupils, while the playwright eventually comes clear he has no significant role for his sole woman teacher by the clumsy method of having the character comment on her position in the play. It’s a pity – her other intervention is more pointed; in a group mock-interview she shocks the young men with the reminder they may actually face a female Oxbridge interviewer.

What selects a character for particular attention seems to be their sexual activity, and there’s an indication that Hector’s favoured means of gaining physical gratification from his favourite boys has begun to rub off on some of them. These days, social services would be there proclaiming child protection long before the headmaster had almost succeeded in kicking the teacher out.

It’s hard to regret the passing of Hectors from classrooms, despite their replacement by appalling clipboard and target-driven conformists. Which may be why the sadness and irony that eventually spreads across the action fits well, as does the sense of a mismatch between teachers’ wishes for their pupils, and the young people’s own aims. It’s in such matters Bennett’s school fantasy hits home.

Headmaster: Thomas Wheatley.
Hector: Gerard Murphy.
Irwin: Ben Lambert.
Mrs Lintott: Penelope Beaumont.
Akthar: Beruce Khan.
Crowther: Tom Reed.
Dakin: Kyle Redmond-Jones.
Lockwood: George Banks.
Posner: James Byng.
Rudge: Peter McGovern.
Scripps: Rob Delaney.
Timms: Christopher Keegan.

Director: Christopher Luscombe.
Designer: Janet Bird.
Lighting: Tim Mitchell.
Sound: Mic Pool.
Musical Arranger/Director: Malcolm McKee.
Choreographer: Jenny Arnold.
Dialect coach: Martin McKellan.
French language coach: Sam Alexander.
Assistant director: Lisa Blair.
Assistant musical director: Rob Delaney.

2010-06-15 07:44:34

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