Writer: Alan Bennett
Director: Daniel Buckroyd
Reviewer: Glen Pearce
‘Our perspective on the past alters… Looking back, immediately in front of us is dead ground.’ It’s a tip a teacher gives potential Oxbridge scholars in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys. Perhaps nine years is still recently fresh in historical terms but, while the social landscape may have changed from its 1980s setting, Bennett’s masterpiece is as fresh and vital as when first staged.
The thought of a teacher casually fondling his sixth -form pupils may have taken a darker twist now than the comedy Bennett original conceived in 2004, but the mix of dark humour, razor sharp observation and the devastating portrayal of the generational difference between young men on the verge of their lives and a teacher reaching the end of his somewhat lonely career remains utterly compelling.
Bennett’s script builds layer upon layer of detail, giving us insight into a generation that has unparalleled opportunity – if only they’d realise it. These 8 boys may study ancient history but it’s a bright future that beckons. In contrast Hector, their beloved tutor seems a relic more suited to the history text books, a fact that his Headmaster seems only too happy to tell.
Daniel Buckroyd’s lovingly crafted production fuses the comedy and pathos seamlessly, immersing us fully into the classrooms of this 1980s Sheffield Boys School. There’s real attention to character and detail here, each boy unique but also a recognisable output of the education system. The same goes for the teaching staff, ideals and dreams somewhat stifled by the system and endless years of repeated facts.
Stephen Ley’s old-school Hector is a man of the bygone age, all too recognisable from school day memory. Approaching retirement, Ley captures perfectly the sense of a man who’s substituted a real life outside the classroom for fleeting moments of camaraderie with the countless pupils that have passed through his classroom over the years. There’s an aching sense of loneliness in Ley’s portrayal that tugs at the heart.
Freddie Machin’s Irwin is, on the surface, the polar opposite of Hector. A tutor barely out of University himself, he seems to offer a new style but ultimately is as unsure as Hector. Machin has pitched the rôle perfectly, balancing the turmoil of a man coming to terms with who he is while trying to portray the image his peers expect. There’s fine support from Liza Sadovy as the worldly wise Mrs Lintott, and Ignatious Anthony as the league table obsessed Head.
The octet of young actors playing this class of history students are suitably strong. Philip Labey as the sensitive Posner, Scott Arthur as the class pinup Dakin and Max Gallagher as narrator Scripps stand out in the memory but there’s strong performances from all eight – Oliver Llewellyn-Jenkins, Sagar Radia, Gareth Bennett-Ryan, James Dryden and Daniel Francis-Swaby.
Buckroyd makes great use of Dawn Allsopp’s impressive revolving set, maintain pace and momentum throughout. It’s not a staging that overshadows the drama however, keeping us focused on the human impact. By the final scene, with the slow realisation of the true cost of opportunities missed dawning, it’s hard not to be moved.
The History Boys is recognised as arguably Bennett’s finest work and in this accomplished and beautifully observed production as this it’s hard to argue with that thesis.