The History Boys. Encore Performing Arts. The Duchess Theatre. Long Eaton.
Arguably, one of Britain’s most famous and well-loved plays, Alan Bennett’s “History Boys, first performed in 2004, yet set in a Thatcherite 1980s grammar school, has certainly stood the test of time. Education, both methodology and outcome, are dissected as eight very different boys prepare for their Oxbridge entrance exams following an excellent set of A Level results. On stage, we are presented with well-meaning, yet flawed adult characters who are tasked with guiding the optimistic next generation who have their whole futures ahead of them.
Irwin (George Lamb) is employed at Cutlers’ Grammar school in Sheffield and disrupts the status quo of the boys’ education at the hands (both literally and metaphorically) of the ageing Hector (Terry Stevenson). Hector teaches behind a locked door, much to the confusion of the other faculty members, seemingly follows no curriculum, teaching French when he should be teaching Literature…oh and he grabs the boys’ testicles as he gives them rides on his motorbike. As a central element to the storyline, this sexual harassment is presently bluntly, as if it’s merely a fact of life that the chosen boys are groped, apparently for appreciation. The relationship between Hector and the boys, is the central relationship in the play, but it is built on deception. Stevenson does a fine job of presenting a character who cares so deeply but is overtaken by his own closeted desires. From enigmatic leader to a broken shell, Stevenson gives us his full repertoire of emotion as Hector’s methodology and actions are called into question. The juxtaposition between Hector and Irwin is clear (youth vs experience), one says follow your heart and the other says, find an angle and exploit it. Despite his transgressions, Hector is presented as the more sympathetic character.
In only his second role for Encore Performing Arts, George Lamb gives us an Irwin who appears to know it all, only for the audience to discover, that his teaching persona is built on lies. Lamb is standoffish at first but does develop a warmth towards the boys, one in particular. He is certain that his way is best. I particularly enjoy the scenes where Irwin and Hector verbally spar.
Mrs Lintott (Lizzie Norris) is the only female member of the cast, and in fact, the only female character written into the play. It’s a masculine world, but not once does this seem to phase her. Lintott is strong and clear and presents her character with fervour. Mrs Lintott is not afraid to speak to her mind, and Norris ensures that this determined woman, who refuses to accept Hector’s wrong doings and espouses the role of women in history to the patriarchy, is given her chance to shine. Playing the Headmaster of Cutlers’ grammar school, Adam Worton, is absolutely dogged in his hopes to achieve top places in the league tables with more boys attending Oxbridge universities than ever before. The character is overblown and a little exaggerated, but this works in a comedic sense. Of particular note is the scene whereby the boys are acting out a scene from a French brothel, trying to hide the fact from the Headmaster while Dakin (Robert Stott-Marshall) has no trousers on!
And now for the boys. Scripps (Robert McAuley) acts as a guide of sorts, breaking the fourth wall to give opinions and direction to the audience. McAuley certainly has presence on the stage and is a trustworthy character who gives off an air of maturity beyond his years. Of particular note, is his live piano playing; what a multi-talented young man. Stott-Marshall as Dakin is brooding and highly sexed. He is the boy that everyone fancies (including, it would seem, some of the teachers). Dakin is well liked, and it’s easy to see why thanks to Stott-Marshall’s relaxed demeanour – he plays this part with ease and fully immerses himself into the role. One of the more heart -warming moments is the hug between himself and Posner (Arden-Caspar Jennison); Posner is in love with Dakin, but this never affects their friendship. One of the most memorable lines in “History Boys” comes from Posner: “I’m a Jew, I’m small, I’m a homosexual. And I live in Sheffield. I’m fucked”. Jennison brings humour to the plot, but it is tinged with sadness as he almost betrays his heritage by dismissing the Holocaust. Jennison shows Posner’s light -hearted side and his more vulnerable side with ease.
Rudge (James Wallace) is hilarious as the less-intelligent boy who really does not belong at Oxbridge, but has family connections. Matt McAuley’s Timms brings a real light-heartedness and his love of the stage shines through the character – his cheeky “wahay” at the end as his future is revealed is joyful to watch, as is his turn as a French prostitute. Ahktar (Shantanu Bhumbra), Lockwood (Harvey Latter) and Crowther (Rhodi Denton) fill out the cast of eight boys, and are very good in their supporting roles.
Unfortunately, for this reviewer, the pith and punch that I come to expect from Alan Bennett was somewhat lacking and the pace is too slow. Some of the more humorous moments are lost in the dialogue and the promised 10.15pm end extended to 10.30pm. While the use of the set to create different spaces works well visually, the sometimes lengthy execution of the moves, does slow the pace.
The History Boys is definitely a play that is worth seeing and is playing at The Duchess Theatre in Long Eaton until Saturday 21 September.