Ginger Hibiscus | Ginger Hibiscus | REVIEW: The History Boys
Ginger Hibiscus | REVIEW: The History Boys
Ginger Hibiscus | REVIEW: The History Boys
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30 Apr REVIEW: The History Boys

Widely considered to be the greatest work of British playwright Alan Bennett, and last year voted the “Nation’s Favourite Play” in a poll by English Touring Theatre, The History Boys is back on stage, and travelling the country on a 23 venue tour. With eight of the brightest boys Cutlers’ Grammar School has to offer thrown into a classroom melting pot with two very different teachers, the race is on to prepare the boys for the opportunities of their lifetimes: the entrance exam, and subsequent interviews, for a place at an Oxbridge university. Putting aside Cutlers’ lack of previous success in securing these coveted spaces, with such a clever bunch of engaged students, the headmaster is left positively salivating at the prospect of having something to put on the front of the Governors’ Report.

In 80’s and 90’s Britain, school leavers with hopes of making it into Oxford or Cambridge stayed on for an additional school term, time dedicated to swotting up, honing technique, and apparently embarking on a search for girls willing to let them touch them. With a history curriculum to be taught by a general studies teacher, Hector, who believes that examination is the enemy of education, and a supply teacher, Irwin, determined they should forget the party line and take a well-reasoned, provocative stance in both exam and interview, it promises to be one hell of a term, and a turning point for every single one of the boys – and men – involved.

A play piqued with well-read humour and as detailed a comprehension of bygone days as would win you a pub quiz, the brilliance of The History Boys lies squarely in Bennett’s writing, in his well-constructed characters and compelling dialogue – and in particular the dynamics of the titular boys, so familiar to, well, anyone who went to secondary school. This particular gaggle of guys all look to a cocksure Daiken, a young man who even the teachers grudgingly revere, with the arrogance of youth and a brazen face. The most successful in the pursuit of girls, he’s “having it off” with the headmaster’s secretary, but that doesn’t stop him from putting his superior intelligence to the best use imaginable: winding everyone else around his little finger.

Despite being the most fascinating and relatable aspect of the play, in director Kate Saxon’s production, the depiction of the group’s pecking order feels a little lacking, Daiken less of a rallying point and Posner less cruelly ridiculed, leaving the group on very much an even footing. That said, there are some excellent performances amongst the largely inexperienced actors playing this unruly rabble, most memorably from David Young and Patrick McNamee, both making outstanding professional theatre debuts as Rudge and Lockwood respectively, the first more concerned with athletics than academia, and the latter coolly outspoken. But when it comes to this production, the only element that’s even close to matching the brilliance of the script is Richard Hope’s Hector, stubborn, steadfast and blind to the consequences of his actions.

Taking a particularly musical slant on the play, Saxon’s production firmly sets the decadal tone with scene breaks marked by songs contemporary to the sixth formers, songs from Eurythmics and Dead or Alive, lifting the play at all the right moments, and providing a well-judged soundtrack to the seamless transitions.

More than anything, staging The History Boys is a brilliant excuse to get Bennett’s script out, dust it off and give it a good outing. To bring it to audiences so they can marvel at the writing and laugh and frown along. And to that end, it absolutely fits the bill. But even as a good production of a great play, the ambition of this version falls short of the unrestrained aspirations that make the Boys so memorable. Even so, watching The History Boys is an excellent way to spend an evening.

For tickets and information:
Images: Matt Martin Photography

Star Rating

Ginger Hibiscus don’t like using stars as a headline; we think they’re too reductionist, and that decision-making based on stars misses the point of a review. Just as you wouldn’t judge a personality using a five-point scale, theatre is multi-dimensional. So have a read, and then look at the stars afterwards.
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