Writer: Alan Bennett
Director: Jack Ryder
Felix is the headmaster of a grammar school in the early 1980s. He desperately wants more boys to get into Oxford or Cambridge and finally, he has a class that might do it. Their A level results were excellent, but have they got what it takes to give them an edge in the entrance examinations? Part of their preparation is under the tutelage of Hector, an English teacher who rejoices in knowledge for its own sake. His lessons are unconventional to say the least, including learning poetry by heart, roleplaying in French to practise the subjunctive and recreating classic scenes from black and white movies. And singing such classics as Bye Bye Blackbird. Felix is concerned that the boys need more rigour and so appoints Irwin, a historian and the polar opposite of Hector, to shake things up.
The History Boys features the well-observed dialogue, on the surface flippant with somewhat darker depths, that is writer Alan Bennett’s trademark. We meet the eight boys and their teachers: at first, one might imagine they are somewhat stereotyped, but the depth of characterisation increases under the sure hand of director Jack Ryder so that by the end we feel we know them well. And while the action may be focused on the staff and boys Posner (Thomas Grant), Scripps (Frazer Hadfield) and Dakin (Jordan Scowen), it is truly an ensemble performance, with masterfully executed set-pieces.
Ian Redford brings us Hector, the idealistic progressive for whom examination results and education are two quite distinct things. One believes in the character – including his flaws – as he is besieged by those who disagree. Lee Comley is Irwin, that most annoying of characters who seems to delight in being contrary, instructing his charges to challenge the conventional received wisdom in order to stand out. Under the bluster, Comley succeeds in showing Irwin’s vulnerability as he also has to defend himself from those who might disagree with his pragmatic approach to getting on. A calming voice is Victoria Carling’s Mrs Lintott, giving a credible performance as she points out the male-centric nature of the school and society. Jeffrey Holland gives a masterclass as the blustering ambitious headmaster, desperate to do whatever it takes to get success for the school – regardless of the views of staff or students. His increasing exasperation with Hector is well drawn.
Grant is a superb Posner, conflicted and wearing his heart on his sleeve as he worships Dakin. It would be easy to make Posner a caricature, but Grant avoids that, making him a sympathetic character. Scowen’s Dakin tones down the arrogance of the character: while he still has self-belief, he is also confused, especially by his developing feelings towards Irwin. Hadfield’s Scripps acts as our narrator and guide with an ironic look and turn of phrase.
John Brooker’s set design that comprises a realistic school hall with screens that slide in and out to divide the stage and form smaller spaces is effective; transitions are smooth, assisted by the relevant video projections with driving 1980’s pop beats as a background that help fix the scene for us.
This is a worthy addition to the list of productions of this classic Bennett play and to the in-house productions at the Grand Theatre, showing it has the maturity and confidence to continue producing quality drama.
Runs until 22 February 2020