THE HISTORY BOYS
Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, 12th February, 2020
Wolverhampton’s Grand Theatre continues its recently established policy of producing at least one in-house show per year with this thoroughly excellent staging of Alan Bennett’s modern classic.
Charting the progress of a group of lads as they prepare for Oxbridge applications, this is a hilarious comedy with a serious backbone, as it questions the very nature and purpose of education. Veteran English master, Hector (a splendid Ian Redford) believes that education should prepare us for what life throws at us, that it should round us out as human beings; fresh out of the box teacher Irwin (a pitch perfect Lee Comley) is of the widely held belief that education is preparation for exams, and he is full of pro-tips to make the boys’ essays stand out from the crowd. Redmond’s florid outbursts contrast nicely with Comley’s more repressed approach. Both are superb and infuse their respective roles with subtlety and therefore credibility.
Jeffrey Holland plays against type as the unlikeable Headmaster, all league tables and quantifiable results, in a hugely enjoyable turn, demonstrating once again he can tackle weightier roles and still be very funny. Victoria Carling mediates as the pragmatic Mrs Lintott, in a wryly humorous portrayal.
And then there are the boys. Frazer Hadfield’s Scripps is a wizard on the piano. I enjoy Crowther (Adonis Jenieco) and Timms (Dominic Treacy) in their re-enactment of an old Bette Davis film. Joe Wiltshire Smith is delightfully blunt as the taciturn Rudge, and there is strong support from Arun Bassi’s Akhtar and James Scofield as Lockwood. Standouts are Jordan Scowen as the roguishly charming, cock-of-the-walk Dakin, and Thomas Grant, stealing the show as the sensitive, lovelorn Posner while treating us to some wonderful renditions of standards like Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered and the works of Gracie Fields and Edith Piaf. This is lovely stuff.
Director Jack Ryder gets the tone absolutely right. The comic timing is impeccable (the French lesson set in a brothel is a hoot) but Ryder pays equal attention to the quietly dramatic moments of Bennett’s superlative script. Scene transitions are covered by huge video projections, affording us glimpses of life around the school, while 1980s pop hits blare out, to remind us that this is a period piece – although given the state of education today and the obsession with testing and data-compiling, there is much that is relevant still.
With this production the Grand builds on and surpasses previous successes – how they’ll top this one next year remains to be seen. A key part is the selection of the play. Here, they get everything right and it’s a real pleasure to see work of such a high quality being produced at my local!