June 15, 2010
Oxford Playhouse, 14-19 June 2010Alan Bennett’s much-loved play-turned-film makes a very welcome trip to Oxford this week as one of many stops in a West Yorkshire Playhouse Production tour. Given the success of previous national productions and the film version of 2006, the pressure to live up to expectations is high to say the least. Thankfully, this adaptation, directed by Christopher Luscombe, is an absolute gem.
On the surface, the plot may not seem like much: the focus is a 1980s A-Level class of bright boys at a grammar school in Sheffield, whose headmaster is desperate for them to get into Oxbridge. However, what materialises is a slick script that is full of charm, wit, laughs, poignancy, song and thought-provoking debates. Combine Bennett’s remarkable writing with a highly compelling cast and you can gain a sense of the depth of the play’s power. Each of the twelve-strong cast is superb, but a particular stand-out is James Byng as the fragile Posner – a musically-gifted, impressionable Jewish boy coming to terms with his homosexuality. Byng’s talent is astounding, from comic, camp sketches to tear-jerking songs, to the occasional intense, expressive glance more articulate than words. Kyle Redwood-Jones holds his own as the popular, confident and handsome Dakin who wins the hearts of both classmates and teachers. Gerard Murphy, meanwhile, puts in a powerful performance as the controversial, larger-than-life Hector with a love for language and the boys he teaches.
Some directorial touches are worth mentioning, in particular the use of music excerpts to signify the passing of time (Coldplay’s 2001 track ‘Clocks’ opens the play, before a series of 80s music extracts as the story flashes back to the school days). A slowly revolving stage is employed to enable perspectives from every angle – something that generally works well, although occasionally means that the speaker has his or her back to us and the voice becomes relatively muffled. There are merely two backdrops for scenery: the classroom walls and the staff room. This works well in ensuring that scene changes are slick and the action runs smoothly. Indeed, with the play lasting over two and a half hours, one could be forgiven for fearing it might drag. Luckily, though, the very opposite was true and several of the rapturous audience members were up on their feet at the curtain. In short, Luscombe’s production of Bennett’s renowned play leaves you gripped throughout and captures an astonishing array of emotions: humour, sadness, philosophical musings and sometimes some outside your comfort zone. Thoroughly recommended.