Here’s another play that most people know something about but which Mrs Chrisparkle and I had never seen; and the film passed us by as well. The National Theatre’s original production in 2004 had tremendous reviews and a rather brilliant cast, by the sound of it; but I’m delighted to say that the recent revival by Michael Longhurst at the Sheffield Crucible, the last night of which we saw on Saturday, also has a brilliant cast and was a very enjoyable, although not quite flawless, production.
A simple set greets you on entering the auditorium – the floor of a school gym, that slightly uncared for parquet flooring that I remember all too clearly, and with sketchy well-worn sports court tramlines painted on top. That gym floor has the power to bring back all one’s own school memories in an instant. Scary! The school staffroom, and the movable glass encased pod that becomes the Headmaster’s Office, get wheeled on and off the stage along with school desks and chairs in a sometimes frenzied manner by the boys en masse, acting as scene setters whilst apparently doing sports training or performing one of the musical numbers that the eccentric teacher Hector has taught them. These scene changes work incredibly well; they help the show proceed with great pace and it maintains the humour even whilst we are waiting for the next bit to continue.
Whilst it is all very inventive and clever though, the staging is a problem from time to time. Sometimes the shape of the Crucible stage can really work against the audience. Much as when we saw Macbeth last year, depending on where you sit, some important scenes can get masked, and important character reactions can become invisible. From my seat (B16), whoever was sitting opposite the headmaster in his office was completely obstructed by the glass edged corner frame. Admittedly, the door was left open, and the reflection of the person could be seen in the door, but I didn’t feel that made up for the poor sight. The setting of the classroom scenes were rotated so that everyone got a different view in each scene, which sounds fair; but whenever a teacher had their back to you, it was a) hard to hear what they said, and b) impossible to see or hear the actor who was facing the teacher. I heard other people grumbling about that on the way out of the auditorium. That always makes me very frustrated – when you’re centre of Row B, you really ought to have a great view!
Whilst I’m on the subject of frustration, I was also very disappointed to discover that they had run out of programmes for the final performance. To someone like me, who has kept all their programmes (and ticket stubs) going back to 1968, who likes to read the programme from cover to cover, including the bios of the cast and creative team, and who refers back to them on and off throughout the years to see the photos of the cast, and of the rehearsals (they’re often in programmes nowadays), I found the lack of a programme a slight mental barrier to bonding with the production. It also means I can’t illustrate this blog with photos from the programme – instead I have borrowed some photos from the Internet. I hope you don’t mind.
I was, however, very impressed with the play itself. Funny, sad, taking very believable characters and making them just slightly larger than life; dealing with big questions about the nature of education and trust, and that sometimes perilous interaction between virtually adult pupils and teachers. It’s full of accurate, instantly recognisable characterisation: everyone knows a teacher like Hector, who believes in education for life rather than exams; everyone knew a boy like Dakin, more sexually precocious than is good for him; everyone knows an administrator like Headmaster Felix, keener on statistics than real life and only happy when he can label and categorise people and events.
Matthew Kelly gives a very entertaining performance as Hector, profoundly useless at preparing the boys for Oxbridge but creating a bond with them in an appreciation of everything that nourishes the heart, mind and spirit. Hector and the boys are a team; he’s the leader but he also allows himself to be dominated by the team dynamic if he sees fit. Hector comes across as both the stereotypical “tweedy jacket with elbow patch” teacher, and the surprisingly leather clad rebel on his motor bike, looking for a likely lad pillion rider for thrills and a grope on the way home. It’s a fascinating character because he’s human, he’s far from being 100% good; and you ask yourself the question, how much bad behaviour are you prepared to tolerate from one person for the greater good? The play’s answer is, quite a lot. If you’re familiar with your 1970s British drama, I’d say Hector makes a very interesting comparison with David Mercer’s unorthodox and unpredictable vicar, Ossian Flint. Anyway, Matthew Kelly gives a great performance of schoolmasterly bluster, kindly counsellor, personal rage and emotional outpourings.
It’s an excellent contrast with the cool and reserved performance of Edwin Thomas as Irwin, the graduate new recruit brought in to sharpen the boys’ brains for the rigours of applying for Oxford and Cambridge. As Irwin attempts to break into the Hector/Boys club, it becomes a very interesting study of what happens when an outsider interrupts a cosy set up. Loyalties are tested, judgements called into question. The play’s two acts both begin at a later moment in time, when Irwin, now a presenter of History TV programmes, is filming an episode which will be interrupted by one of the boys. Irwin’s perhaps unsurprising bitterness is clearly revealed in a very effective use of dramatic irony, and I thought Mr Thomas’ performance here became disquietingly sinister. Brilliantly done.
I very much enjoyed Nicholas Day’s performance as the Headmaster, clearly intellectually outsmarted by his colleagues but secure in his power of status and seniority. Alan Bennett gives the character some of the best lines in the play and he makes the great use of them. Julia St John as Mrs Lintott, the third teacher, also gives an excellent performance, treading a sensible path between the extremes of the others and amusingly giving voice to Bennett’s subversion of the rules by virtually coming out of character to revel in the fact that she’s the only woman in the play. Great use of shock language! I was reminded of the character of Maria Feletti in “Accidental Death of an Anarchist” turning on the writer, Dario Fo, for his sexism in making her the only woman in his play. I also loved the scene where the three teachers coach each of the pupils on how to be interviewed for Oxbridge. It’s a hoot, and really heightens the differences between the characters.
There are superb individual performances too from the actors playing the boys. Both Mrs C and I agreed that Oliver Coopersmith as Posner was outstanding. In Posner’s own words, being small, Jewish, homosexual and from Sheffield notwithstanding, he gives a superbly subtle performance of being discriminated against and vulnerable but also incredibly defiant and unsentimental. His singing was immaculate, and his comic timing fantastic. I also really liked Tom Rhys Harries – who gave great support in the Menier’s Torch Song Trilogy last year – as Dakin, the good-looking popular boy on a mission to spread the boundaries of sex as much as he can dare; a really confident and insightful performance. Joshua Miles, brilliant in Bully Boy, here plays the outspoken Lockwood, again excellent, although I was a little disappointed that we didn’t see more of him as it isn’t really a major part. Will Featherstone’s Scripps was another no-nonsense portrayal of a character who knows he’s going to have to make lots of sacrifices in his life, a surprisingly moving and very believable performance. The rest of the cast give solid gold support and in particular the eight actors who play the boys put in an amazing overall ensemble performance – you can see that they’ve got a fantastic working relationship and it gives tremendous drive to the whole production. Thought provoking, funny, and very satisfying – this was an excellent revival and I’m glad we got the chance to see it.