Review: The History Boys

Entertainment

Alice Troy-Donovan✮✮✮✮

Ten years ago The History Boys opened to rave reviews at The National Theatre. The play about a northern grammar school in the Thatcherite eighties and its various approaches to preparing post- A Level students for life was deemed both hilarious and profound in its exploration of the value and meaning of education. Ten years on and the play about getting a group of sparky, opinionated boys into Oxbridge has come to The Oxford Playhouse. Given new life by an extremely talented cast, this Oxford University Student Company production of Alan Bennett’s now classic play can expect a reception on par with its original in 2004.

Presenting a story about getting into Oxbridge to an Oxford student-dominated audience, however, is bound to alter the play’s dynamics. No surprise, then, that this production seems to have acquired a new kind of self-consciousness, often with hilarious results. An auditorium full of theatre-enthusiasts, thespians, and the odd reviewer are laughing as much at themselves as the play’s wit when Irwin warns one of his pupils that “any undergraduate keen on acting forfeits all hope of a good degree.”

It is typical of the play’s mixing of philosophical enquiry and hilarity – a synthesis which allows the dialogue to switch with startling ease from debates about the holocaust to the sexual “conquests” of Dakin, one of the schoolboys. (The conversation turns full circle here when Posner points out a fault in Dakin’s use of a military metaphor, returning from sex to academia once again.) The extraordinary cast (each member, it seemed, was made for their role) retains this brilliant mix with confidence and flare. Some instances seem to have acquired an almost iconic status of their own, as when Rudge pricelessly defines history as “just one fucking thing after another.”

Like Rudge’s opinion on history, the play’s set appears deceptively simple. The lights go up on a classroom that is anything but extraordinary: a few harsh fluorescent lights hang suspended over plastic chairs and desks, a piano, and a blackboard. Even the colour of the walls – a wan green – seems to reflect the unimaginativeness which Irwin so abhors in his pupils’ essays: they are, like the wall paint, safe and acceptable, but dull as hell. The set is consciously generic, recalling the audience’s own long-gone (or, given that the audience was mostly students, not-so-long-gone) school days. But it also serves as an appropriately uninteresting background to the unquenchable liveliness and zeal of the boys, who prance around in what Hector calls “sheer calculated silliness,” performing excerpts from old films such as Brief Encounter to roaring laughter from both their classmates and the audience.

Amongst all the joviality it’s easy to forget how much of an emotional impact moments in the play can have when performed with as much nuance as this production. The rendition of “Bye Bye Blackbird” sung by the boys at the end, beautifully poignant in its contrast with the previous cheerier duets of Posner and Scripps, was one such moment. It is the last demonstration of the play’s eclectic balance of comedy and tragedy, of music, popular culture, and poetry. In short, a delight.

Sam Liu ✮✮✮✮

There is always a great deal of pressure with any play, a pressure well-known to actors and directors alike. With certain plays, and in certain contexts, the pressure is even greater. Such is the case for this production of The History Boys; written by a man, Alan Bennett, often considered a national treasure, recently voted “the nation’s favourite play”, and now in its 10 year anniversary since being performed for the first time at the National Theatre in 2004. To this, add the fact that the play – about A-Level students applying to Oxbridge – is being performed by a group of Oxford undergraduates. The result is a weight of expectation and importance that must have been heavy on the minds of all those involved. No doubt then that this was quite an undertaking. But it was, happily, an undertaking well worth the effort.

Set in a grammar school in Sheffield in the 1980s, The History Boys follows a ragtag bunch of boisterous, precocious and quick-witted teenagers in their pained efforts to gain places at the elitist higher education establishments in the land.  The boys are at the heart of the play – collectively and individually they are the touchstones for the other characters, and often for themselves. Luckily the group dynamic works effortlessly and convincingly on stage. We don’t for a second doubt the authenticity of the friendships, the sincerity of the laughter, and this is in large part thanks to excellent casting and the ease with which each actor inhabits their part. Nathan Ellis brings a softness and a sense of humour to the role of Scripps, whilst Jack Herlihy shines as  Timms, delivering his lines with impeccable timing and hilarious physicality. The well-known French brothel scene, and the re-enactment of the Bette Davis film, Now, Voyager, both stand out as superbly funny comic vignettes, handled with deft and talent.

At all times guiding the boys on their way there towers the irrepressible and irresistible figure of Hector, teacher of so-called “general studies”. Escaping from the shadow of the original History Boys is of course a problem for everyone, but perhaps it poses the most difficulty for the actor who must step into the shoes of the legendary Richard Griffiths. From his very first entrance, though, Benedict Morrison does a wonderful job of making the role his own. Exuding charm and wit, and with a charismatic onstage presence, Morrison’s Hector is Wildean; more energetic, more expressive and certainly more camp. But the deep and heartbreaking sadness within Hector is not overlooked, and Morrison skilfully brings out the fragility and anguished melancholy beneath the bravado. The poetry-reading scene with Posner (Luke Rollason) – the student who most mirrors and embodies Hector’s own suffering – is especially moving in its quiet, understated poignancy.

With a cast this strong, under such evidently sound direction from James Lorenz, and a script as brilliant as Bennett’s, it’s hard to see where things could go wrong. There is, perhaps, something a little uncomfortable about the occasional bit of self-congratulation (Irwin’s “I went to Bristol” raises a curious roar of laughter from the Oxford audience), and the show would have benefited from there being a more believable and gripping sense of sexual tension between Dakin and Irwin. These, though, are minor niggles in what otherwise makes for a highly entertaining, thought-provoking and affecting night at the theatre, and a truly terrific show. As Hector might say, bien fait, mes enfants, très bien fait. 

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