The History Boys is one of those plays which sheer brilliance demands a cast to match. The script, if handled clumsily, will simply fall apart. But the cast of this particular production shoulder Alan Bennet’s play, and all its cultural history, with skill. Minor set mishaps, such as the breaking of a chair, were handled with such nonchalance and humour that it was initially unclear whether it was in fact scripted, and the subtly of theme and character were carefully reproduced.
The play follows a group of northern grammar school boys as they prepare for the entrance exams for Oxford and Cambridge, and the three teachers who are tasked with bringing them up to scratch, using a variety of, often contradictory, techniques. Hector (Jack Doyle), the eccentric General Studies/English teacher wishes the boys to have a solid grounding in literature and the arts, so they can become “more rounded human beings”. Mrs Lintott’s (Kat Collison) classroom is compared to a battery farm by one of the boys, as she relies on the standard method of teaching pure historical fact. Irwin (Kavya Deshpande), brought in especially to help the boys with essay technique, pushes a radical teaching style that relies on twisting facts on their heads and espousing radical arguments to impress examiners, with no regard to sincerity or ‘truth’, something very important to Hector. The irony of a group of Oxford student’s putting on a play, in Oxford, about prospective Oxbridge candidates is clearly not lost on the cast or production team, resulting in an extra layer of comedy over already-funny moments. One memorable scene involves Crowther (Benedict Turvill), one of the ‘history boys’, being advised by his teachers to downplay his love of acting in his interview, as this will not impress the fellows looking for academic excellence. Whether or not Bennet anticipated these lines being said to an Oxford student acting in his play remains to be seen, but the ‘inside joke’ aspect of this is exploited to full effect by the actors involved.
The comedy of the play comes not only from the irony of its production, but from the way the cast handled the rowdy, riotous humour streaking through the play. The iconic ‘French class’ scene was admirably acted, gathering a lot of laughs from the audience. The cast manage to capture almost perfectly the essence of a group of ambiguously working-class boys, with their boisterous, ‘laddish’ behaviour masking the vulnerability that is allowed to shine through at certain moments throughout the play. It is this balancing act between the comic and the poignant which defines The History Boys, and this production seems awake to this fact. The main emotional heft of the play lies in the second half, and that is exactly where it picks up speed, with the cast settling into their roles much more fully as the characters are fleshed out. Irwin’s character is especially notable in this half, as he is allowed the vulnerability only afforded to the other characters earlier in the play. The scene with Dakin (Joe Woodman) is subtle and memorable, toeing the line between comic and melancholic, as the audience become more aware of their creeping suspicions that things are not going to work out well for this pair.
The set of the production was limited, with just a few tables and chairs set out in a classroom-esque shape, and yet these few props were used imaginatively, moved around to create different rooms and moods. The staffroom had its own distinct layout, as did Hector and Irwin’s classrooms. The small space allowed to the cast was filled to the brim, with incredible acting and emotion.
In short, The History Boys is a masterful play, one that the cast of this production do justice, allowing the emotion, the comedy, and the intellectual back-and-forth to shine through, with no aspect eclipsing any other. The duality of each individual character is shown subtly, with the character of Hector being a prime example of this, attracting both sympathy and scorn in equal measure. For those who have seen The History Boys before, and for those who have not, this production will not disappoint.
The History Boys will play at the Moser Theatre, Wadham College, until the 3rd of March.