The History Boys - Byre Theatre, St Andrews, Wed 22 Apr
On The Rocks arts festival
It's sometime in the ‘80s, somewhere in the North, in an underperforming all-boys secondary school. The unremarkable nature of this setting is there in the set’s drab schoolroom furniture, in the actors’ generic black blazers. But Incompetent Productions' (very competent) production of Alan Bennett's award-wining play almost immediately shatters the preconceptions one might bring to something so seemingly unpromising. The schoolboys, newly returned post-A-Levels to prepare for Oxbridge entrance, are played with real conviction: inquisitive, irreverent, cocky, and unsure.
Action centres around the introduction of young supply teacher Irwin (Alex Noel), hired by the tense, League Table-obsessed Headmaster (Ted Rosner) in order to groom them for Oxbridge, and his reception into and effect on both classroom and staff-room. Middle-aged Chris Hooley plays the long-standing English-turned-'General Studies'-teacher, affectionately known as 'Hector', whose beliefs and methods are tested by upstart Irwin's arrival. Hector, fond of quoting the literary greats, is a firm believer in knowledge for its own sake, in education for the enrichment of the human experience rather than for CV ('Cheat's Visa') point-scoring. Irwin at once dismisses the boys' 'dull', historically-sound essays, persuading them that a controversial angle is what will make their Magdalen don sit up and pay attention.
Hooley, dressed in a rather too-small, rather out-dated tweed suit, conveys brilliantly Hector's camp eccentricity and worn but genuine passion for teaching. Noel does well to portray Irwin's social timidity ('so bold in argument and talking, but when it comes to the point…so fucking careful’, as cocksure pupil, Dakin, tells him), a trait far harder to suggest on stage than arrogance or eccentricity.
The History Boys is, unlike most theatre or indeed film concerned with the lives of teenage schoolboys, not simply about emotional and sexual exploration, but about intellectual development too. In this production, it became, overwhelmingly, a play about learning itself, as almost every character (‘Akthar’ (Farhad Colabavala) and ‘Crowther’ (Paul Obi) were left undeveloped) sought out his own way between Irwin's attractive lies and Hector's commitment to truth and 'the heart'. The processes of intellectual and emotional maturation are shown to be intertwined, not only as the boys apply classroom learning to extra-curricular activity (‘Fiona’s my Western Front’), but as they muster the courage to express not only what they think but what they feel (‘That’s good, Posner.’ - ‘It isn’t good, Sir. I meant it.’).
This was the aspect of Bennett's multi-layered play (one that deals with homosexuality, religion, mild paedophilia and more) Incompetent Productions dramatised most movingly. With the exceptions of the older Chris Hooley and Pamela Stirling (as History teacher Mrs Lintott), this was a student cast – a group of young people yet to reach conclusions and solidify choices – and their performances had a poignancy perhaps inaccessible to professional actors. In particular, Andrew Mackley was excellent as the slight, gay, Jewish ‘Posner’, and revealed an unexpectedly strong tenor voice when serenading good-looking fellow-student Dakin (Charles Baker Baker).
These versatile student-actors gave nuanced performances, playing out their characters’ insecurity, then boyish energy by turns. They appeared to relish, as much as the schoolboys they played, the moment at which they had to turn their classroom enactment of French brothel (in which ‘tous les clients utilizent le subjonctif ou le contitionnel’) – on the stunned entry of the Headmaster with the newly-arrived Irwin – into a Ypres hospital scene. The entire class, including George Baker Baker, sprawled on a central desk, well-cast as the arrogant looker Dakin, switch from prostitutes and clients (Dakin sans trousers) to nurses and wounded soldiers with flawless comic timing. The scene is irresistibly funny.
Although aspects felt disjointed and amateurish – such as the inclusion of video-clips showing the boys reading in the library or exploring local historical sites to abrupt snippets of ‘80’s classics, ‘This Charming Man’ and ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ – this was, overall, an absorbing production, which brought out both the humour and pathos of Bennett’s brilliant script.