There's no doubting the capacity of this Alan Bennett play to move, provoke and challenge assumptions about all sorts of things – education, the role of the teacher, the rampant arrogance of teenage boys and even nascent homosexuality.
I’m not sure it quite deserves the status of masterpiece, as is so often hung on it, but it’s certainly got humour, pathos and plenty to think about.
In this co-production between Bath Theatre Royal and the West Yorkshire Playhouse, currently touring the country, the tale of eight post-A level students being prepared for Oxbridge entrance exams by two very different teachers is played out efficiently and effectively, with laughs and tears in all the right places.
At the heart of it is the maverick teacher Hector, bluffly portrayed by Gerard Murphy as a well-meaning mother hen who takes his affection for his pupils just that bit too far. Opposite him, in so many ways, is new teacher Irwin (Ben Lambert), drafted in by the headmaster to coach the boys to Oxbridge success and simultaneously undermine the wayward methods of Hector.
Thomas Wheatley as the headmaster and Penelope Beaumont as the sole female voice, world-weary teacher Mrs Lintott, add maturity and weight as the representatives of flawed authority. But it’s the eight ‘boys’ who make the most impact, as Bennett clearly intended they should, striking exactly the right pitch of smart-mouthed impetuousness, pushing the boundaries with their elders and finding their place among their peers.
Christopher Keegan is boisterous as the cheeky chappie Timms, Rob Delaney proves a fine musician as well as actor, thumping out tunes on an on-stage piano, while Kyle Redmond-Jones judges the predatory heartthrob Dakin to perfection, leading on both his classmates and his teachers with just the right measure of tease.
But most impressive of all is James Byng as Posner, the runt of the class, whose lovelorn looks at Dakin and subtle hints at victimhood are beautifully played. He displays a superb singing voice, too, which only adds to the poignancy of his torn heart.
I have one or two quibbles with director Christopher Luscombe’s staging, which includes an irritating revolve and some dreadful sightlines at times, but the overall result is a tribute to Bennett’s cleverness at working his audience and the skill and judgement of a fine group of actors.