Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘The History Boys’, which is at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre until Saturday 22nd February.
You could certainly spot the teachers in the audience at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre last night. They were the ones who were laughing the loudest. And who can blame them? For my money, this is Alan Bennett’s funniest play, firmly anchored in his own school day experiences of applying to Oxford. To push the point even further, I reckon he’s even putting himself on stage in the character of Hector, the quixotic, aging, throw-back teacher with a wonderfully individualistic way of doing thing and a certain sexual persuasion.
The play premiered at the National Theatre in 2004 with the heavyweight Richard Griffiths in the lead role. Jack Ryder, at Wolverhampton, has carefully cast Ian Redford as Hector who, by painstaking attention to Bennett’s speech patterns and more than a hint of his accent and timbre, perfectly embodies the writer himself. He also absolutely captures Bennett’s anguish about how education ought to be, and the direction in which it is actually going, i.e. down-hill to a dead end of an exam-passing process. Peddling the truth in an examination is no longer enough.
This in-house production at The Grand is excellent on every count. It is so obedient to the sine-waves of Bennett’s writing that the play is a roller coaster of tom-foolery and then repressed despair, that leaves the audience feeling like pebbles on a beach, swept back and forth by the incoming tide.
For example, in Hector’s ‘General Studies’ lessons (otherwise known as ‘Useless Knowledge’), the boys act out a brothel scene in France, purportedly to improve their French conversation. Needless to say, at the most erotic moment of improvisation, in walks the Headmaster with a new teacher. Thanks to Bennett’s brilliance, the French dialogue is so outrageously ‘cod’, it is both hilarious and perfectly comprehensible; capped by that magic moment of French farce.
But almost immediately, the poignancy ebbs by as the boys discuss their budding homosexual leanings and Hector explores his gathering, age-related crisis.
It is quite brilliantly written and the Grand’s production is excellent on the pathos and nails most of the gags; though Bennett’s humour is so pervasive some of the more subtle levity does tend to slide by.
The play, set in a Sheffield School, is told in flashback with one of the boys – Scripps, engagingly played by Frazer Hadfield – helpfully filling in with the context. At the opening of the drama Irwin, the new teacher played by Lee Comley, is briefly in a wheelchair … and we spend much of the play wondering why he ended up in it. Comley’s acting treads a finely drawn tightrope between having huge respect for Hector’s unquantifiable passion for teaching on one hand and the blatant need to get the boys through their exams … like Manchester Grammar does … on the other.
Irwin is not much older than the boys themselves (“grow a moustache”, advised the Headmaster), and his vulnerability to their advances, and the necessary side stepping of them, is sensitively portrayed.
The playing with language is wonderful. Jordan Scowen, as the amorous Dakin, has designs on the Headmaster’s young secretary and (in one of Bennett’s most deliciously extended allegories) discusses his progress in term of Second World War tactics … such as ‘advancing on all fronts’. His bored classmates simply ask him to let them know when he’s “got to Berlin”. It’s the funniest gag … soon to be balanced by the pathos of the parents of Posner, the Jewish boy, being upset by their son’s lessons on The Holocaust. This intricate, interweaving flow of themes is Bennett at his absolute best.
The production is punctuated by wonderful pastiche playlets, snatches of popular song and beautifully delivered poetry; even if, as the boys do protest “most of the stuff poetry is about hasn’t happened to us yet”.
Going to see it. It’s an education and, as Hector says, education has to be fun.
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