THE HISTORY BOYS
Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 8th September, 2013
Alan Bennett’s widely acclaimed play, examining approaches to and effects of education, is presented in this excellent production by Birmingham’s little gem of a theatre. The house was full for this performance and I believe everyone went away happy and perhaps even edified a little.
The Headmaster of this fictional school is all too recognisable from life, fixated as he is by league tables and his obsession with being able to quantify everything. He recruits Irwin, a supply teacher to help prepare a bunch of high fliers for their Oxbridge entrance exam. Irwin’s methods are at odds with those of General Studies teacher, Hector, who sees education as enrichment for life rather than a means to jump over prescribed hurdles. The boys themselves come to appreciate the contrast in their deliveries, on their way to becoming rounded individuals and/or members of the academic elite.
Bennett treats us to comedy high and low. One scene, in schoolboy French, is particularly funny, as the boys enact a transaction in a brothel. Other moments are more subtle; and among the humour there are also moments of pathos. Of all the boys Michael Jenkins shines as sensitive, lovelorn Posner, in a detailed and layered performance. Jenkins’s singing voice is a particular asset for this production. This is a young man with a future in musical theatre or there is no justice in the world. Other standouts are David Harvey as Scripps, whose narration is assured and philosophical. I also liked Scott Richards’s Lockwood and Gwill Milton’s Timms. Robert Dean grows into the cockiness of school stud Dakin but needs to be more at home in himself from the outset, and Dominic Thompson needs to slow down his delivery of Rudge’s punchlines at times in order to maximise their effect.
Alan Marshall is a wonderful Hector, warm and funny, he holds the audience in his thrall as much as his charges. The fact that his approach to education (along with his groping of the boys on his motorcycle) is damaging to the young men is treated largely as an undercurrent, balanced against preparation for exams as too limiting a function of the education system.
As young Irwin, Mark Payne is equally good, dazzling in the classroom, nervous and out of his depth outside of lessons. Annie Harris gives solid support as Mrs Lintott, who gets the choicest words to shout out in the staff room, and Brian Wilson is suitably uptight as the results-driven Headmaster.
There are a few moments when the energy of some scenes seems to drop but for the most part, director Ian Robert Moule gets the tone just right. Keith Harris’s multi-levelled set allows for swift and efficient transitions, accompanied by bursts of 80s hits to remind us we are looking back, just as the boys are looking back in their history classes.
Set in the 1980s, the play is still all too relevant today, considering we have a Minister for Education who seems to equate memory with achievement. Sad to relate, only one point made seems to have been overridden: there are now female historians on the telly – Bennett did not foresee the advent of Mary Beard.