You just know that an Alan Bennett play will be brilliant. Erudite, comic, touching, well-observed, literary and insightful too, but especially brilliant. And so it proved. His latest play is set in an anonymous all-male northern grammar school in the early 1980s and follows an unruly bunch of sixth formers trying to gain a place at Oxbridge. Some work colleagues and I joined yesterday's matinée audience at the Lyttleton Theatre. We were the youngest people present by some considerable distance (reminder to self: on retirement, join the matinée set). I suspect I was the only person in the audience actually to have been a sixth former in the early 1980s, let alone a grammar school boy and Oxbridge candidate. But my school was never quite like this one.
The cast sparkle as much as the script. There's "an unruly bunch of bright, funny sixth-form boys in pursuit of sex, sport and a place at university" (played by a fine ensemble cast who I'd have loved to have had as classmates). There's "a maverick English teacher" (played by Richard Griffiths, who I've always rated, and who brings just the right amount of passion and compassion to the role - which can be difficult when your character is a motorbiking child-fiddler). There's the "young and shrewd supply teacher" (whose teaching methods smack of Thatcherism, not that Bennett is ever quite blatant enough to say so). There's "a headmaster obsessed with results" (about 20 years ahead of his time I think, played by a Tebbit-like Clive Merrison). And there's "a history teacher who thinks the head’s a fool" (the marvellous Frances De La Tour, revelling in the most cynical lines in the script).
The play isn't afraid to explore some erudite and intellectual themes, but intertwines them successfully with the comic and the tragic. It's simply but effectively staged and the audience lapped it up, all nearly-three-hours of it. We grinned, we nodded, we laughed, we applauded and we left feeling richly satisfied. I think it was only me noted the proper 1980s-style yellow socks and graffitied hessian rucksacks though. 95/100 A+