Lyn Gardener (The Guardian)

    Full of wit and wisdom Voted the nation’s favourite play in a 2013 poll, Alan Bennett’s 2004 drama set in a Sheffield grammar school in the 1980s, where a group of sixth-formers are aiming for Oxford, launched the careers of James Corden, Dominic Cooper, Samuel Barnett and Jamie Parker. It sets up a conflict between Hector (Richard Hope), the maverick English master who believes “exams are the enemy of education” and teaches his pupils to be thoughtful, and the coming man, Irwin (Mark Field), who teaches the students to be smart, pass exams and win scholarships. If you want to play spot-the-future-star from the fine cast in Sell a Door’s no-frills touring revival, bet on Steven Roberts, who gets under the skin of the lovelorn, self-aware Posner, noting: “I’m a Jew. I’m small. I’m homosexual, and I live in Sheffield. I’m fucked.” For so pithily a crafted play about the consequences of history, this has always been something of a period piece. The play has never quite felt comfortable in its 1980s setting, harking back instead to the 1950s, when Bennett himself was a bright grammar-school boy. In the age of Operation Yewtree, the story of boys groping their way towards knowledge under the tutelage of Hector, who tries to grope them as they ride pillion on his motorcycle, refuses to be viewed quite so comically. Director Kate Saxon admits as much in the programme, raising the fact that Bennett has said that “he finds it harder to forgive Irwin for fiddling with the boys’ minds than Hector for doing the same with their bodies”, but making the point that it is still assault. The production doesn’t quite succeed in side-stepping the problem, although the motorcycle suspended over the stage keeps the issue in mind, but that’s in part that because, for all its intellectual clout, there is something quite cosy and reactionary about Bennett’s view of the boys and the grammar-school system. Still, it’s an entertaining couple of hours full of wit and wisdom about the difference between being schooled to pass exams and claiming an education, while Saxon’s revival cannily suggests that the emotional distortions and lies of adults are as much a danger to the young as the wrong education