Writer: Alan Bennett
Director: Christopher Luscombe
Reviewer: Catherine Love
Is all knowledge, as A. E. Housman posits, ‘precious whether or not it serves the slightest human use’? This is just one of the questions posed by Alan Bennett’s phenomenally successful play The History Boys, returning this year for another national tour. In the critically acclaimed comedy, a motley bunch of bright Sheffield schoolboys apply for history at Oxbridge and are put through their paces by three very different teachers.
The heart of the play is eccentric and unorthodox English teacher Hector, who truly takes Housman’s remark to heart. As the poetry spouting educator, Philip Franks runs the risk early on of overplaying the comedy, but he later soft-pedals the jokes and fleshes out the rôle in a performance that, while not as delicately nuanced as Richard Griffiths’ definitive portrayal, is warm and endearing.
Set against Hector’s espousal of knowledge for knowledge’s sake is shrewd new teacher Irwin, who advocates the use of tricks and formulas to stand out from the crowd. Ben Lambert, who incidentally looks unnervingly like original cast member Stephen Campbell Moore, does well in the rôle but there is something missing from his Irwin; he is never quite the bold, charismatic figure that Bennett has written. Penelope Beaumont completes the trio as by the book history teacher Mrs Lintott, bringing both warmth and a wonderfully sardonic humour to the rôle.
This production is firmly rooted in its 1980s setting, effectively grounded in a specific time by the snippets of popular music that play over the set changes, which are executed by the cast with a choreographed quality akin to dance. Music also plays an important rôle in the scenes, usually sung by Posner but with a couple of numbers involving all the boys, including a delightfully exuberant rendition of ‘Wish Me Luck As You Wave Me Goodbye’.
Exuberance is a characterising feature of the young cast, who on the whole throw themselves into the rôles with energy and zeal. George Banks has just the right amount of swagger and charm as the confident Dakin, though at times he is a little too self-assured for one so young and his natural charisma dominates the scenes with Lambert’s slightly ineffectual Irwin. Unfortunately, Harry Waller does not bring such charisma to Scripps, who as the writer of the group should be the storyteller guiding us through the play, something he never quite achieves.
In the less prominent schoolboy rôles the actors all put in competent performances, with Peter McGovern and Ryan Saunders standing out as an unimpressed Rudge and a cheeky Lockwood respectively. One History Boy, however, rises above all the rest; Rob Delaney’s sensitive, moving and multi-textured portrayal of Posner is the highlight of the evening. It is a nuanced and intelligent interpretation, perfectly capturing the subtlety that is sometimes lacking elsewhere.
Subtlety, unfortunately, seems to be a concept lost on Thomas Wheatley’s cardboard cut-out headmaster, who confuses shouting and exaggerated pomposity with comedy and throws away some of the script’s funniest lines. Christopher Luscombe’s direction can likewise be a little heavy-handed at times and one feels that a lighter touch might have brought out some of the script’s finer nuances. There are a host of hilarious moments, with one side-splitting highlight being the boys’ enthusiastic rôle-play of a French brothel, but the comedy is occasionally in danger of feeling forced.
Nevertheless, despite the odd weak link in this production, Bennett’s brilliant script, packed tightly with witty one-liners, still sparkles. A funny, moving and multi-layered play, The History Boys continues to ask searching questions about the nature of education, history and human relationships – and it is a great night of entertainment to boot.
Runs until 2 April