By: Alan Bennett
Directed by: Christopher Luscombe
Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre
Date: Monday 24th January 2011
I wasn’t drawn to this play when it was on at the National; no idea why, it just didn’t grab me despite having an excellent cast, and being by a great writer whose work I usually enjoy. I was happy to go to Chichester to see it, though, and at least now I have some idea why I wasn’t keen to see it earlier. Some of the problems were down to this production, one was unfortunately in the audience itself, but some were definitely down to the play.
Firstly, the audience. The couple behind us were determined to have as many ‘chatter’ moments as they could. They cut it pretty fine at the start, almost talking over the dialogue, and they used every scene change to continue their not very quiet conversation, but it was at the start of the second half, when they did carry on over the first lines, that I turned round to tell them to shut up. In no uncertain terms. And thankfully, they kept quiet for the rest of the play, which is probably why I enjoyed it more in the second half.
The next problem was the delivery. I could hear some of the dialogue clearly, and the singing was fine, but I missed a lot as well, including some of the jokes. The accents didn’t help, but I got the impression that this was a proscenium arch production that hadn’t been fully adjusted for the wide thrust stage, and the actors may not have been prepared for how much more they would have to work to get the lines across. Naturally, that ruined much of my enjoyment. Also, with the proscenium arch staging, I found it hard to see some of the action properly, especially the opening scenes of each half where Irwin, in a wheelchair, was mostly obscured by the furniture. I gather from Steve that the opening scene at least was done by video at the National, so presumably they didn’t want to tour with that level of technology, or else they just wanted to do it differently. Fine, but I wasn’t involved enough at the start because of it.
Then there were the performances themselves. Mostly fine, there were some weaker areas. Much as I love Philip Franks as an actor, with many fine memories of his work through the years, I felt his Hector wasn’t ‘strange’ enough to make sense of the role, and not entirely believable as the closet gay teacher who gropes his pupils’ balls while driving his moped with one hand and much too fast. I say ‘closet’ gay – this was one closet that had lost its doors. Steve reckoned Richard Griffiths was much more eccentric, and that worked better.
Likewise, I found some of the other characters weren’t well drawn enough. The female teacher, Mrs Lintott, while having some of the best lines, didn’t seem to have any particular character, Irwin was very weak, both in delivery and characterisation, and although the main boys were very good, there was a lack of depth in the ‘chorus’ that left me cold. I suspect we may have caught this production very early in its tour, and that it needs some time to get to grips with the play. [Not so; after checking websites, this tour started in 2010] At the moment, it feels like the actors are relying on Alan Bennett’s writing too much, and that just saying the lines should be enough. For me, I want to see more acting as well, and especially I’d like to be able to hear the lines they’re saying as well.
Finally, there’s the play itself. I’m not a boy, my education experience was very different from the one shown on stage, and I found I not only disagreed strongly with many of the opinions expressed, I also felt the thinking in this area seemed very shallow. I didn’t get any real sense of the different attitudes to teaching – Steve says this came across more strongly in the National production – and therefore much of the play seemed pointless. And what exactly is wrong with encouraging students to think for themselves and have a different point of view? I agree it can be used simply as a technique to make someone sound more intelligent and knowledgeable than they are, but it is also a valid way to make a point, and in general, I think it does history, as well as other subjects, no harm at all to have to tackle multiple viewpoints. After all, many of the cultures the British colonised for so many years have had opinions which differed from the accepted British Empire view of history, and these have been and are being assimilated into a greater world view – what’s wrong with that? I certainly agree that much of the TV history presentation is akin to journalism – naturally, since that’s what works on TV. And what’s wrong with journalism exactly? None of this was explained; it just seemed to be assumed that we would all agree on the ‘correct’ standards, and so find the jibes at one or other target to be funny. Well, some were, most notably the emphasis on league tables and the treatment of women in the academic professions. But a lot weren’t which is unusual for a writer of Bennett’s calibre. I can only assume that with so many parents concerned about their children’s education, this play touched a funny nerve, which is why it was so popular.
So not the best evening in the theatre, then. I’m glad I’ve seen it, and I wouldn’t rule out seeing it again, in a much better production. Steve reckoned he would have given the National version a nine or ten-out-of-ten rating, and this one only a six, so clearly there are problems to be sorted out from our perspective. Regardless, I do hope they have a good tour, as many people last night were clearly enjoying themselves more than we were.
© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me