New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham
“Pass it on boys, that’s the game I wanted you to learn… pass it on”
Alan Bennett is one of the best, if not arguably the best playwright of his generation. His writing is sharp, witty and highly engaging: so much so that History Boys was voted the nation’s favourite play in a survey carried out in 2013. Originally produced at the National Theatre in 2004, winner of the Olivier Award for Best New Play and Tony Award for Best Play, and filmed by the BBC in 2006, the beloved play returns again to tour the UK presented by Sell A Door Theatre.
Set in 1980s Sheffield during the Autumn term where a group of A-Level students are having extra tuition with the aim of achieving a place at an Oxbridge institution, History Boys is a play about identity. Hector and Irwin, from different ends of the teaching spectrum affect the boys in different ways. It is an exploration of the relationship between pupils and teachers, the lingering effects of teachers, and a social commentary on the education system which is still relevant today.
The set is simple but very apt for purpose; the scenes all take place in the classroom which is suitably cluttered with books and pictures of great authors and film posters. The sound design, consisting of 80’s pop, is appropriate for the era the play is set in, but it seems to be simply there for that reason – the music could have been chosen more meaningfully to add further depth to the production.
With such a strong original cast it would be easy to believe that some of the characters may be difficult to recreate, but this cast does a great job of making sure the piece has a fresh burst of life in it. Richard Hope captures that inspiring teacher everyone wishes they had, and does Bennett’s writing a great deal credit, his outrageous passion for his work and the warmth he brings to the character allow us to forgive his Hector’s downfall. Mark Field’s performance is perfectly nuanced, he portrays Irwin’s awkwardness most excellently and is very compelling to watch. Christopher Ettridge and Susan Twist also offer great support as the Headmaster and Mrs Lintott respectively; Ettridge finds the perfectly balance for the panicky, nagging headteacher and Twist captures the tired frustration that her character feels, a perfectly three dimensional piece of work.
Steven Roberts does a remarkable job as gay character Jewish Posner, although his voice at times is drowned by the piano: but a most intricate performance for a stage debut as he portrays his character’s unrequited desires and avoids straying towards caricature. Kedar Williams-Stirling bring the Dominic Cooper-esque arrogance to Dakin with a little extra devilish touch of his own which ensures there is freshness and believability in the character. Alex Hope is also worth noting, his character Scripps serves as the narrator for a great deal of the play and he ensures clarity throughout.
It is the clever writing of Bennett that is really the star of the showthough, with so many memorable quotes and perfectly constructed moments this really is a modern classic. Its beautifully timed comedy, layered on top of its thought provoking action and true northern steel characters is a pure delight for any theatre lover. Thought-provoking and as fresh as ever – a play everyone should see.
Runs until: 28th February 2015 (Birmingham) and on tour until 11th July 2015