This evening I finally got around to seeing Alan Bennett's latest play
, only five months after my first attempt at doing so was derailed by a ticket-booking cock-up, and a mere year after the play was first performed at the National Theatre. Just call me zeitgeist boy.
It is nominally a story about a group of boys applying for Oxbridge, but in fact this is something of a fig leaf; far more important are the play's debates on the nature and purpose of teaching and education. The scholarly Mrs Lintott (Frances de la Tour) has brought the boys so far, and had them achieve excellent A-level results, but the school's headmaster decides that to have any chance of success at interview they need more polish, more flair
, and has supply teacher Irwin (Geoffrey Streatfeild) take over their preparation. However, Irwin's approach is diametrically opposed to that of one of the school's other teachers, Hector (Richard Grifffiths), who believes that art is a personal thing, not to be used to spice up an entrance exam essay.
Many things about the play are very good. It is extremely funny, by turns black and bitingly witty; it is unashamedly intelligent (or as Bennett puts it in his introduction to the script 'stiff with quotes'), one pleasing consequence of which is that we actually get to see teaching taking place; the production (directed by Nicholas Hytner) is fluid and involving, with good use made of video segments to add texture to the proceedings and disguise scene changes; and the performances are mostly good or very good, particularly Griffiths, de la Tour (despite the fact that her character was at times quite poorly served by the script), and Jamie Parker's laconic Scripps (even if his ostensibly Yorkshire accent did wander around a bit).
There are a few things, however, that work less well, and chatting to Tom and Mike afterwards, as we walked back along the South Bank, helped me to pin down what they are. Firstly there is a vagueness of setting. The main story is framed as a flashback from what appears to be now, which would date the events it relates to the mid-80s. This fits with some things, such as the music used during scene changes, but not others, such as the jargon used by the headmaster (he talks about league tables), or the details of the oxbridge admission process, which seem older still. We don't even get a clear idea of whether the school in question is a comprehensive or a private school. Bennett admits to as much in his introduction, but says 'it's a play, not a white paper'; this is true, but I can't help thinking that this story would have been stronger when placed within a clear context.
Secondly, and more seriously, I'm not entirely convinced by the resolution of the play's central debate, which as I said is a debate about the nature of education. From the start of the second half, it's clear that the play is going to come down on Hector's side, and not Irwin's; the opening of the second half is set at a time when Irwin has go on to become a TV historian, and brilliantly sends up the worst excesses of the genre but at the same time damages Irwin's character. More frustrating still, Irwin is at one point bested with the trump argument 'it's not a good point
, sir, it's true
', as though the two things were mutually exclusive, or as though the latter beats out the former every time.
The intention (and the effect) here is to paint Irwin as overly devoted to presentation in place of substance. The problem is that it's a betrayal of the Irwin we see in the first
half, who is a teacher making excellent points about the cross-fertilisation of knowledge and the importance of thinking originally--and the importance of debate in the development of critical thinking. Yes, it's certainly wrong to coach students to have the appearance of originality, but to encourage genuine originality, as Irwin seems to be doing early on, is surely vital
. Admittedly the verdict is not as clear-cut as I might be making it sound--Hector certainly has his flaws, and Irwin's approach seems to genuinely benefit some of the boys--but it still left me a little disappointed, and with the feeling that the play had backtracked somewhat from a serious examination of the merits of the two positions.
Overall, however, the good here far outweighs my reservations. There is much that is thoughtful and truthful, and the portrayal of the controlled anarchy of the schoolroom (even if it's a schoolroom full of the most artificially articulate teenagers this side of Dawson's Creek
) is at times nothing short of brilliant. Rumour has it the production will be going on tour soon; if it pops up near you, go see it.