Alan Bennett’s pen is a mighty sharp instrument. This play is joyously funny, heart-rendingly sad, politically astute, deeply perceptive in its humanity and very, very rude. It has made the careers of many a household name in its time and is the perfect vehicle for the undergraduate actor on which to cut his teeth. History has taught us many things about the individual and about the society in which that individual operates. The perspective that Bennett offers his audience on those events that litter the past is multi-faceted and complex. He poses a number of fascinating questions and offers his audience some significant intellectual challenges. Where does History stop and journalism begin? Is History, as claimed by Mrs Lintott, the play’s only female character, a litany of five hundred years of male ineptitude? Is everything pre-destined or is it all just circumstantial? How can we most properly interpret the events of the Holocaust without either belittling it or misrepresenting it? Do we ever learn or, as described in rather more colourful language than is proper to put in print, is History just one thing after another?
Eight young men having successfully negotiated their A-levels are being prepared for Oxbridge entrance in a northern school. Their further development is charged to the care of the liberal idealist Mr. Hector and the intellectually challenging Mr. Irwin. The juxtaposition of these two teachers is shown in ever more significant relief by being set against the prosaic pragmatism of the Headmaster whose focus is more on positions in league tables and keeping the parents happy than in the quality of his establishment’s educational offer. It makes for great dramatic tension which is only enriched when Bennett sprinkles in that most magical of theatrical ingredients – sex. All very decorous and all implied rather than seen, but, in both hetero and homosexual incarnation it is undoubtedly one of the strong beating pulses of the play. And so it should be when so many adolescents are cloistered together with an ambiguously orientated middle-aged teacher and a young idealistic one. It provides the hook on which the dramatic narrative is progressed and the opportunity for a ton of linguistically dextrous jokes.
The performances are fine. Guy Clark as Irwin and Johnny Falconer as Dakin are a convincing pair of sparring partners as teacher and pupil with a mutual fascination, intellectual and social. Aydan Greatrick plays the pathos of the young gay Jewish Posner with great sincerity and uses his singing voice to good effect too. Jackson Caines is persuasive as the God fearing and loving Scripps who has the best and rudest joke in the play. Strong supporting performances come from the rest of the young cast. Special mention must be made of Tristram Fane Saunders, Jennie King and Matthew Clayton who courageously taken on the roles of the older teachers. The challenge is a great one and they step up to the plate without fear. Hector is a part that demands the cumulative weight and disappointment of late middle age. It is no surprise that late and much lamented Richard Griffiths played the part so brilliantly and definitively. Initaially, Clayton plays under that not inconsiderable shadow. It is all credit to him that he manages to emerge from it and create his own Hector.