The New Theatre’s revival of Alan Bennett’s critically acclaimed The History Boys is quite brilliant. The play submerges us in the world of School, Examinations and University applications. The History Boys is in many ways Alan Bennett’s attempt at atonement for what he deemed as having bluffed his way into Oxford by unconventional means; or as he has put it, by a self-assurance swindle.
The austere set design catapults the audience into a 1980’s classroom. The blackboard and harsh lighting evokes this brilliantly. The changing of sets was occasionally clumsy, however this does not detract from its overall brilliance. Posner’s (Jacob Hayes) outrageous lines “I’m a Jew, I’m small, I’m homosexual and I live in Sheffield, I’m fucked”; and Rudge’s (Conor Johnson) summary of History as “one fucking thing after another”, brilliantly encapsulates the spirit of Bennett and brings the play to life. The raillery between the characters is a further source of great comedic effect.
The play, though fantastically humorous, is also an insightful and provocative documentation of a group of boys’ struggle to be accepted into Oxbridge’s prestigious institutions. It is also an exploration of the idea of education and elitism. Directors Bridie Rollins and Tess Monro-Somerville’s adaptation of Bennett’s well-loved screenplay provides a succinct summation of adolescence with all its idiosyncrasies, rivalry and ultimate sadness.
Nick Slater as Dakin is cool, confident and decidedly arrogant; this is brilliantly executed on the stage through his innuendo filled analogies. The performances are ultimately strong and they stay true to Bennett’s characters. Hayes’ poignant and intelligent portrayal of Posner adds a layer of pathos and depth as we understand and appreciate his situation.
The musicality of this play is certainly its strength. The musical accompaniments provided by Jonny Fitzpatrick as Scripps on the piano are flawless and certainly a source of laughs, especially when accompanied by Eoin Buckley’s Lockwood.
Education and its meaning are thoughtfully explored in Rollins and Monro-Somerville’s reworking of Bennett’s play. The essence of education and its purpose are explored at length in the digressions of Hector (Tom Walsh). This is further explored in the extensive banter between the students. For Hector, education is not simply a means to attain a particular pathway, it is knowledge for its own sake, after all, as he puts it “educations is the enemy of education”. This vision of education is certainly not shared by Irwin (Sam Warren) as he undercuts this with sardonic realism whilst advocating a manipulation of the system. Although evidently duplicitous, Irwin’s character is played so sensitively that the audience cannot help but warm to him.
The History Boys is quintessentially a coming of age story as well as an elaborate and insightful sojourn into the follies of the education system in which Irwin regards the ‘truth’ as merely an elaborate game. The New Theatre’s production of The History Boys though not a faultless presentation is ultimately a very successful rendition which I would certainly recommend as the play is a thoroughly captivating experience.