Review: The History Boys by Spotlight Theatre Company. Nottingham Arts Theatre.

five star

Thought provoking and profoundly funny, Spotlight Theatre Company’s first class (hons) production of The History Boys, directed by Cassie Hall and musically directed by Ray McCloud is, by very high degrees, a lesson in fine acting by the whole ensemble.

In Alan Bennett’s beautifully written play a production can rise or fall by the commitment and standards of the cast of boys and the ultimately important casting of their wayward teacher, Hector. If they get it wrong the play can be an embarrassment of misunderstanding and lazy commitment. If they get it absolutely right and spot on with the French language; the clipped dialogue referencing classic films such as Brief Encounter; the academic feel of the 1980s; the importance of the relationships and the bravery of the parts;  history will tell of a superb production. This Spotlight Theatre Company class of 2017 production of Bennett’s play, that of which reflects on class room anarchy, on awkward adolescence, hidden homosexuality and rivalry will go down notably in Nottingham amateur theatre history as one to rival a professional production. Albeit, on a much smaller budget – but certainly no smaller theatrical stature in depiction.

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With Rob Goll ruling sublime cast as General Studies teacher Hector the company are off to a flying start. Goll has acres of personality onstage but his actual performance in this play is a non selfish and bighearted one. He allows his other actors to truly work with him in displaying the love between him and his pupils, however that might be expressed.

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Goll’s Hector is sometimes necessarily showy and always enjoyable to experience. He is at his finest when encouraging the class of late teens to be inwardly and outwardly poetic and at times downright daft to his own financial benefit. Rob Goll’s command of the French language is acutely believable and the scene with the headmaster (Mike Butler) in which Hector’s bad behaviour on his motorbike with a boy on the back is very finely drawn by both actors. Overall this production definitely merits from its profound understatement that defines its acting terms and thereby the subtle performances.

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Mike Butler is scarily believable as the school’s old fashioned 1980’s headmaster including his ill fitting power shoulder jacket. However, Butler’s performance is a measured one rooted in real truth not one falsely garnered from a comic book personality. The actions of the headmaster re the sacking of Hector are of questionable debate. Such is the nature of theatre.

Equally, professional performer Jackie Dunn shines as Mrs (Totty) Lintott, making full use of the only speaking female role in the show. Her delivery of her wonderful passage “… when I was teaching in London in the seventies there was a consoling assumption that not very bright children could always become artists…” is exemplary. Of such astutely clever scripting history can occasionally be made, although not exclusively so.

In his own memoirs, Alan Bennett  even reflects on his own bright intelligence as a young man being admitted to Cambridge. He considers himself greatly in awe of others much more intelligent including the highly educated young men in the University circles in his own time and was he considerably influenced by the gay poet Auden. This is regularly reflected in the body of The History Boys as is the nature of opposing viewpoints and turning history on its head to make a point and to be controversial. History is not a dead subject but one that happened seconds ago with wildly varied definitions. You could almost make it up as you go along – as many have done including the current president of the USA with his ‘alternative facts’ masquerading as abject lies.

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Given that Alex Huntley has scarcely been on stage before in his life his credible performance as the supply teacher Irwin has a subtly profound authority to it. Though it is unlikely that many of the audience would agree with the statement that Bennett gives to Irwin, and to paraphrase,  “ Dons…  most dons anyway  … think the theatre is a waste of time. In their view, any undergraduate keen on acting forfeits all hope of a good degree.” Mr Alan Bennett’s dry wit or irony in ‘vicious mode’ one suspects.

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From the young men in the cast, all of whom, demonstrate a deep commitment and a formidable sense of thorough enjoyment as the cast of smart pupils, it is difficult to pick out specific performances. This reviewer’s generalised declaration is not a ‘cop out’ but an honest recognition of all of the young talents that not only gel wonderfully on stage in The History Boys at The Arts Theatre but, create the scene transitions admirably well. Without this speedy scene shifting re-engagement apropos the showing of this episodic play it could potentially be rather labour-some but the estimable Spotlight team direction avoids this potential failing magnificently.

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Tightly timed, even within the parameters of the apposite 1980s soundtrack, their hard working commitment to the quick scene changes is very commendable. Stage manager Amy Rogers-Gee and her team also help with the slickly actualised transitions. Additionally, the pupils’ individual and ensemble acting is of the highest quality and admirable maturity. The ‘boys’ in this show are as follows Dakin (Joe Smith), Scripps (Patrick McCrystal) Rudge (Stan Cook) Crowther (Jack Grace Buttenshaw) an exemplary Posner (Alexander Tilley) Timms (Matty Collins) Akthar (Nathan Bell) and Lockwood (Alec Boaden).

Finally, as Irwin academically triumphs in The History Boys we might well be moved to consider Alan Bennett’s words about candidates.

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“Candidates do well in examinations for various reasons, some from genuine ability, obviously, but others because what they do in examinations is what they do well; they can put on a show. Maybe it doesn’t work like that now that course work is taken into consideration and more weight is given to solider virtues. But it has always struck me that some of the flashier historians, particularly on television are just grown up versions of the wised-up schoolboys who generally got the scholarships (myself included).” Alan Bennett.

Flashier or not Spotlight Theatre Company certainly put on an excellent and intelligent show and this reviewer looks forward to many more of their offerings if the standard is as atmospherically and technically high as The History Boys.

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Reviewer: Phil Lowe.

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