This isn’t a sponsored post.
BrumHour is invited to review and share about productions and touring shows at Wolverhampton Grand throughout the year.
Dave Massey spoke to Lee Comley from The History Boys for Interval Theatre on Brum Radio. Listen back here:
By Eleanor Lawson twitter.com/Elle_Lawson
The History Boys at
Written by Alan Bennett and directed by Jack Ryder
The History Boys holds a place in my heart that no other play can compare to. Some people have seen Les Miserables five or so times, likewise with Rocky Horror, Phantom, or Macbeth. I’ll admit to seeing Andrew Scott as Hamlet eight times. My mom has seen Cliff Richard in concert over a hundred times.
I first saw the film adaptation of The History Boys when I was sixteen, having dreamt my whole life of studying at Oxford University. So it’s no surprise that I fell in love with the film, about eight teenagers applying for Oxford and Cambridge, and I’ve seen the film over ten times, plus the play’s last run when it was at the Alexandra in 2015.
Written by national treasure Alan Bennett, the play revolves around eight boys studying History at a grammar school in Sheffield, taught by the larger than life Mr Hector, who fills his General Studies lessons with songs and art and poetry. The school’s headmaster has a vision of his students at Oxbridge, and so the younger, more ambitious Irwin is brought into the fold, and that changes everything. You could say my expectations were pretty high. At one point in my life, I could recite every line of the film and immediately point out which moments deviated from the play’s script. But it’s been a few years since I last saw it, so has anything else emerged that had previously remained hidden?
For a start, the dynamics of abuse are front and centre, and can obviously not be ignored in a post #MeToo age. You feel guilt at sympathising for Hector as an audience member – even if his methods of teaching are enlivening – because he gropes his pupils. Likewise, while the actors who play Irwin and Dakin are the same age in the famous film adaptation, it’s a more niggling concern when this relationship is brought onto the stage. Whenever a character mentions Hector locking the door for his lessons or planning on who to take on his motorbike, there are a few sickening moments where silence swells over the stage, taking the abuse more seriously than the play’s script appears to.
It’s hard to walk in the shadows of a very famous predecessor of a production, but I was so impressed with this production. From the clever, slick stage design: austere, riveting your focus on the screens that set the tone of Hector’s indulgent lessons with a clip from Now Voyager, to the vignettes of the boys interacting, the close-up shots illuminating the nuances of their emotional states. In particular, it heightens the heat fizzling between Dakin and Irwin, and the blow to the gut this inflicts on Posner.
Every single actor brings an impressively powerful, intricate character to the stage. Ian Redford as Hector does despicable things, but the suffering that seeps out of him is a painful reminder of the life he has wasted. In one of my favourite speeches of all time, Hector tells Posner that reading is like a hand reaching out and holding yours, and the whole theatre was right there in the moment with him, palms spread open.
Both Lee Comley as Irwin and Jordan Scowen as Dakin cleverly toe the line between intellectual swaggering and a vulnerability in their desires. But it’s Thomas Grant as Posner that stays with me – the best performance of the character I’ve seen so far. He’s endearing in his worshipping of Dakin, soulful in every song he sings, and just downright heartbreaking – he’s the real pulse of the play.
General Studies doesn’t even exist on the curriculum anymore. There really isn’t time to just sit back and absorb culture. We’re in an age of overworking and constant targets and worryingly high anxiety levels. We seem to have moved into an age of Irwin’s teaching, whether we like it or not. Even though the films and poems and books the boys espouse are all of Hector’s tastes, not theirs, his lessons are still about art for art’s sake and a life beyond the curriculum. Mrs Lintott is pessimistic when she says there is no time for Hector’s teaching anymore, but our lessons have proven her right. Reducing culture to gobbets to be recited for marks without any real self-growth is a real reflection of our education system, and it doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon. But we can still go to the theatre, hands reaching out to hold the characters and feel with them – that will never change.
The History Boys is at Wolverhampton Grand until 22nd February. Book tickets here: grandtheatre.co.uk/whats-on/the-history-boys
This isn’t a sponsored post.
Eleanor Lawson presents and produces Interval Theatre Tuesdays at 3pm on Brum Radio.