Monday 21st March 2011, CURVE

The History Boys

An education worth having

Karen McCandless reviews the History Boys by Alan Bennett

Alan Bennett’s masterpiece that is The History Boys made its Leicester debut to a packed and appreciative audience at the Curve on Monday night. The most well known of Bennett’s plays and probably the most critically acclaimed, I put this right at the top of my ‘do not miss’ list when the Curve unveiled its programme for the season ahead. And I was not disappointed. Just to recap, The History Boys is set in a school in Sheffield in the 1980s. It follows the fate of a group of boys who are studying for the Oxbridge entrance exams at the fictional Cutlers’ Grammar School.

The play also focuses on the teachers’ attempts to impart an education to the boys: Irwin (brought in specially to coach the boys), Mrs Lintott (straight-forward and factual) and Hector (charismatic and eccentric English teacher), while the headmaster is mostly interested in exam results and league tables.

The class portrait from the history boys 2015

One criticism sometimes leveled at this play is that Bennett puts too much of himself into it. While it may be true that the playwright’s views on the importance of education are apparent throughout, the issues actually tackled here are much more complicated than that. The characters are all fairly complex individuals, not so one-sided as to be either good or bad, nor loveable or easy to hate. Nor does Bennett particularly condemn or condone any of the behaviour or manner of teaching in his play. In a way, this is very much a coming of age drama, a transition between youth and adulthood, a glimpse into the sort of education Bennett himself enjoyed. He has previously likened himself to the character of Irwin, saying that is the kind of education he had at degree level, while a teacher similar to Mrs Lintott at school taught him at school. Hector is the only one who he has never been taught by and as such still remains something of a mystery.

The teachers have a meeting with the boys from the history boys 2015

Given the blaze of publicity that follows any production of The History Boys, directing a new stage version must be a daunting, but at the same time very exciting, prospect. It is certainly one the director Christopher Luscombe handles very well. The choice of set and the music that accompanied each of the fast-paced set changes all helped to set the scene. The backdrop was a simple classroom window, meaning that there was nothing to distract the audience from the action that was taking place centre stage. The revolving set gave the audience a multi-dimensional view of what was going on; it meant we looked at things from new angles all the time. The action, meanwhile, was anchored firmly in the 1980s, with both the music choices that accompanied each scene change and the dingy classroom chairs and tables.

Luscombe’s casting was a triumph. Ben Lambert was a perfect fit for Irwin, both in looks and character. With a smug and patronising air and emitting the feeling of ‘I’m better than you’ from every pore, he occupies the unenviable position of being the easiest character to dislike.

To his immense credit, he plays that part very well and it is only during the second act that he reveals a new dimension and lets us inside the young man’s mind. When he reveals the truth of his university history to Dakin and when we find out what will become of him in the future, we are firmly persuaded that this is actually a fairly likeable man. His antithesis Hector (Philip Franks) is an enthusiastic and slightly foppish character, a likeable yet slightly laughable man. Franks aptly portrays the innate sadness of his whole situation, and his scenes with Irwin when he discusses how much of a disappointment his life has turned out to be are truly moving. One of my favourite performances of the night came from Penelope Beaumont as Dorothy Lintott. Straight-laced and sensible, she gives real dimensions and depth to what could otherwise be just an also ran character. “A safe pair of hand is how they would describe me,” she says.

The class portrait
The class portrait

As for the schoolboys, Dakin (George Banks) was played with plenty of pomp and bravado, just as he should be. You could almost see the swagger in his walk. While for Christopher Keegan as Timms, a career in comedy surely awaits him. I for one was in stitches with his uncanny impersonation of a lady of the night. The stand our performance for me came from Posner (Rob Delaney).

He brilliantly portrayed the complex nature of his character; after all growing up a Jewish homosexual in the 1980s in Sheffield couldn’t have been easy. Despite that, Delaney manages to bring out the humour in the situation with his love for song and dance and his open but unrequited love for Dakin.

Performance wise, he sang, danced and acted brilliantly and with so much life the whole way through. A star in the making. The chemistry between all the teachers and the boys is magnificent. The camaraderie feels so real and the friendship and animosity between the teachers comes across really well. At times I felt like I wanted to jump out of my seat and get on stage and join them; they just seemed to be having so much fun! The delivery of dialogue was tight and well rehearsed, not a line out of place.

The whole production seemed like a well-oiled machine of epic proportions. Given how much I enjoyed this play, I was glad to see it clearly captivated the Leicester audience as well. It couldn’t have been more aptly demonstrated than at the end of the first act, when not a noise could be heard across the whole theatre. The moments of hilarity followed by moments of poignancy were dealt with brilliantly and were lapped up by and entranced and enthralled public. A simplistic set design, perfect music choice, comedy mixed with the tackling of important topics, superb acting and direction; this is how theatre should be.

(This review was originally published on Arts in Leicester in 2011.  It was re-published today (7th January 2015) as part of our archiving project.)

See also:

Music in 2014

Sculptors hold preview

The Sound of Music

Curve – shows in 2015