You don’t have to look beyond today’s newspaper headlines to know that education is a hot topic, as much so now as it was in the 1980’s when the play is set. If you’re new to the story, however, you may be surprised by its rather dark undertones. You may also be surprised at how casually it skips over such unsettling themes given that, at its heart, there are some very disturbing sexual abuse issues. Whilst showing that groping young boys on the back of the teacher’s motobike is wrong, Bennett makes light of the actions of Hector (Richard Rycroft) with a comical tirade from the headmaster (Marcus Taylor) who is more concerned about the speed he was doing. It’s a tricky balance to get and Sell A Door’s production does seem to thrust us between raucous laughter and uncomfortable silence. Rycroft creates a loveable character in Hector who certainly looks and sounds the part of an eccentric man, passionate about educating his boys for the vicissitudes of life with no care for examinations. It is then difficult to keep this view as he feebly admits molesting his students, which leaves us with a lack of trust in the adult characters.
Taylor is a bold comic performer who provides a lot of the giggles with a host of frantic gestures and emphatic grunts, creating a headmaster that would sit well in an Armstrong and Miller sketch. He is just ridiculous enough to be believable. The boys all look the part with strong chemistry between them which allows their shared dialogue and set-piece movement sequences to work like the cast really had been schoolmates together. The musically talented Joe Morrow makes an excellent Scripps, hitting the deadpan one-liners as flawlessly as his more sombre narration. His warm Leeds accent and calm, natural manner make it easy to connect to. Dakin (Adam Lawrence) is well suited to the role of class heartthrob with a slightly arrogant confidence that lets him say and do whatever he wants without ever turning the audience or his classmates against him. Lawrence Murphy has the Broadway singing style and stubbornly camp persona of Posner and there are some lovely scenes between him and Hector, not to mention a beautifully melodramatic rendition of Brief Encounter. Bridging the gap between teacher and student is the young university exam coach Irwin (David Hutchinson) who shows the vulnerabilities of his character underneath the frustrated academic. There was a feeling that Irwin’s self-pity was starting to dominate in later scenes but this was a good performance in a difficult outsider role.
There are strong supporting performances including Alistair Hankinson as the abrupt and seemingly dim-witted Rudge and Chris Aukett as Timms who is wonderfully reluctant before diving headfirst into hamming up a French prostitute for the amusement of classmates and audience alike. All the boys are great to watch and made it all the harder for the adults to keep up. Amanda Reed's Mrs Lintott, with an air of the Dame Judy about her, has good characterisation although seems to lack confidence with many furtively avoidant looks to the floor and some of her earlier lines a little quiet. Even Rycroft seemed to lose energy completely when he wasn’t being expressive and boisterous. There was a tangible slowing of pace at times and whilst it may have been partly due to the heat of the Greenwich Theatre’s auditorium, I felt that a lot of action happened too far upstage. There is a moving scene between Hector and Posner as they discuss Hardy which could have been brought closer to the audience and making even more of Richard Evan’s detailed and elegant set.
This is an entertaining production and one that is certainly worth viewing if you’ve not experienced Bennett’s play before. It may have you debating whether education is merely a platform for ensuring kids pass exams or whether the next generation should be prepared for their lives ahead but in any case, it’ll have you laughing in your seat, reminiscing about your own school days and, in the end, how little has changed.