Taking on this well-versed Alan Bennett gently-comic modern classic, which has appeared in more guises than you can shake a school cane at, could be something of a daunting task for a first-time director.
Sheffield University Theatre Company’s Paul Hilliar has not come unstuck, creating a warm, well-paced production with a convincing cast who convey humour and pathos to the witty, wordy script. Standout performances come from Todd Baker, (Hector), Mark Chapman (Headmaster) and Chris Ince (Posner).
Switching the setting to 1980s Sheffield gives a local twist, which leads to some added belly laughs. During one poignant scene, lovesick Posner bemoans being ‘Jewish, small, homosexual – and ginger- in Sheffield!’.
Hilliar’s fresh approach also overlays iconic pop soundtracks of the age (The Undertones, ABC, The Smiths) as the drama unfolds. Music’s a fantastic shorthand for tapping into characters’ emotions so, at these moments, it’s easy to feel you’re standing in the scuffed shoes of the boy protagonists.
There’s a fair amount of ground to cover in this nostalgic exploration into education, the conflict over the way history is taught in schools (Hector’s focus on literature and ‘the truth’ does battle with Irwin’s contemporary ideas about subverting the ‘dull’ standard teachings in favour of a contrary ‘angle’ to the past) and adolescent struggles with sexuality.
With this in mind, the three-hour show (including interval) may have benefited from some salami-sliced editing but this crowd-pleasing, cracking production makes it’s own little piece of history.