Opening to a packed and enthusiastic house on their first night, the members of the Oxford University Student Company provided absolutely first class entertainment in this play about school, growing up and reaching for the stars - in the shape of an Oxford education. Such was their virtuosity, it was hard to believe that they were not professional actors: word-perfect, with brilliant comic timing, they sparked off each other as only good actors can and even sang to a standard which any a cappella group would have envied. Even the programme was a cut above the average overpriced advertising leaflet; informative and thought-provoking, it contained an excellent introduction and essays by Marketing Manager Alex Wood and a brief but insightful piece by Benedict Morrison, who played Hector.
Hector had to be the star of the show and Morrison made the part his own, despite being a completely different shape and personality to Richard Griffiths, the Hector of the film version.
He had superb stage presence and was entirely believable as an inspiring teacher, commanding the attention and respect of his pupils and supplying them with the kind of classroom fun and repartee that is remembered into old age – along, of course, with all the poems and quotations he inspires them to learn ‘by heart’.
The other teachers were also ideally cast and played to perfection: The serious, prissy, conventional but sympathetic Mrs Lintott, played by Claire Bowman, who has enabled students to pass A’levels with top marks but eschews the showy ‘presentation’ of history which might get them to Oxbridge;
Irwin, the introverted but determined young teacher learning how to handle a room of bright boys and struggling with his own sexuality and past disappointment; the headmaster, who in this production is superbly comic, his timing and faux-outrage exquisitely playedby Barnaby Fishwick.
The boys also came across as very distinct characters; Posner, the fragile Jewish boy coming to terms with his homosexuality, was perfectly cast and very sensitively played by Luke Rollason. Dakin, played by first year French student Tommy Siman, was similarly believable as the confident, good looking boy that everyone is in love with. Jack Herlihy’s Timms was particularly hilarious in the wonderfully farcical French lesson scene. Rudge, played by Frazer Hembrow, also convinced as the down-to-earth rugby player who everyone sees as the outlier in the Oxbridge-entrance stakes. Crowther (Duncan Cornish), Akhtar (Venkat Rao) and Lockwood (Tom Lambert) were no less convincing and Nathan Ellis as Scripps, the boy who is reluctantly wracked by religion, proved also to be a fine pianist.
In fact, this play was a very special experience and one absolutely not to be missed. It is after all a wholly appropriate choice for an Oxford student production and the easy brilliance with which it was played might also reflect the fact that the students did not have to make a great leap of imagination to get inside the heads of the boys they were playing. They had all been there and are all now here!
The audience’s laughter at Irwin’s comment that Oxbridge interviewers wouldn’t be impressed by students professing a love of theatre because of its potential impact on one’s class of degree was clearly occasioned by the irony of where we all were and who the actors were. It was also extraordinary to think that Alan Bennett, whose work of genius this play is, was a product of Exeter College, just a stone’s throw away, and that most of the poets quoted were either his contemporaries or his predecessors: A.E. Houseman, Philip Larkin and Robert Graves within sight of the Playhouse at St John’s, with W H Auden over at Christ Church.
Be quick – there are only three nights left!