The History Boys

Apr 7 2010 | By More

✭✭✭✭✭   Penetrative and delicate

King’s Theatre Tue 6 – Sat 10 April 2010

Tight, provocative and thoroughly satisfying, Alan Bennett’s The History Boys returns to the King’s in a new touring production that pulls off the neat trick of being both thrusting in approach and penetrative in its understanding, while maintaining a delicate touch.

Rob Delaney, Kyle Redmond Jones and Tom Reed in The History Boys

Rob Delaney, Kyle Redmond-Jones and Tom Reed

It is the script itself which will endure, of course, and this production ensures that while the performances are all smoothly effortless, the words and ideas are allowed the life that they deserve.

Gerard Murphy has the humanity and humility for Hector, an english teacher at a Sheffield grammar school in the 1980s whose octet of bright A-level boys are cramming for their Oxbridge entrance exams. If the outrageous exuberance of Hector’s lessons is completely over-the-top in retrospect, Murphy makes them seem quite natural at the time.

The eight boys put in an ensemble performance which allows them to be seen very much as a unit, but who are easily differentiated to extract all the different subplots about their own foibles and interests. All are excellent, although the key roles of Posner (James Byng) – young for his age, innocent and gay – and Dakin (Kyle Redmond-Jones) – mature for his age and attractive to everyone, what-ever their sexuality – are particularly well drawn.

The lessons burst with energy – thanks partly to the pumping Eighties soundtrack which both cuts each scene from the next but also provides a continuity, so that time passes naturally. But it is mostly down to the vibrancy of the performances – each boy unstinting in their maintenance of character – that keeps the whole production on the edge.

sophisticated wordplay

Sex drives it all. The fascination of boys on the verge adulthood with the functioning of their parts, coupled with these boys’ prodigious talent for adapting as a unit. Their sophisticated wordplay – built on the solid foundation of Hector’s enthusiasm for learning everything from Vera Lynne to Kipling by heart – just gives their predilections a voice.

It is the nature of education which is openly under scrutiny here, however. While Hector’s approach celebrates knowledge, whether it has an obvious practical use or not, as precious, the play itself can be seen as Bennett’s apology for gaining access to Cambridge and then Oxford by learning tricks to satisfying examiners rather than by learning itself.

This trickery – what Bennett calls journalism – is represented by the threatening presence of the thrusting young teacher, Irwin, brought in by the school’s vacillating, results-driven headmaster to teach the boys how to achieve the passes he so desires – and help push the school up the academic tables.

If Ben Lambert’s Irwin has any failing, it is that he isn’t quite as vicious a presence as he might be. There is no real sneer towards Penelope Beaumont’s precisely and beautifully drawn Mrs Lintott, the boys’ existing history teacher. In fact, it feels as if she is the threat. Her historical knowledge might be delivered in boring chronology, but her understanding of its application to real life is unassailable.

By playing down this side of the character a tad, however, Lambert allows the vulnerability of the character to come through as the balance of power swings first between the Irwin and Hector, and then between the two teachers and the boys.

The changing balance is accentuated by a central revolve on the stage. Indeed, this is a fabulously staged production, which celebrates the Music Hall nature of the play’s structure by playing up the laughs and music itself.

And it is a production that lets you realise that this play is not really about education at all, or indeed sex or coming of age. Here is life, society and the choices we made in the Eighties, which are coming back to us now. The history, boys and girls, is our own.

Above all, it is a production that knows the value pace, allowing the whole to come to a satisfying climax.

King’s Theatre, 2 Leven Street, Edunburgh EH3 9LQ
Tuesday 6 – Saturday 10 April 2010


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