Thursday, 5 February 2015

Stage Review - The History Boys

Photography by Matt Martin 

The argument here does not require decoding to understand both sides of it: on one hand the always perceptive, Alan Bennett presents the stuffy, conventionality of the school approach in regard to transferring knowledge from teacher to pupil and he offsets this against the characterization of Hector (Richard Hope). Hector is a teacher who is more nurturing and who is more abstract in his approach to teaching.

Which is the better way for these boys? Which approach will be deemed to be the most successful/beneficial for these individuals in the long run? I’m not sure if the play argues either side effectively and I make my intentions known straightaway, that it is the script alone that I am putting under scrutiny in this review. I believe it was the script itself that was detrimental to my overall enjoyment of this play. Perhaps it was simply a case of my expectations being too high.

The script is not meant to present realism, and so with this new found (after the event) knowledge; I am decidedly more forgiving. Nevertheless, this is a case of proverbial speaking on the subject of education and on life’s reflection. The script is wordy and the cast members really get a grip on reams and reams of dialogue, but this word overload made my eye lids feel mighty heavy at times. The swearing helped to lift them however, also The 80’s sound bites being a welcome injection, as was the piano playing accompanying Steven Roberts (marking his stage debut with History Boys) when doing his ‘turns’ in the role of student, Posner.

The message is designed to be radical, thought provoking and humorous; not unlike teacher Hector’s lead in his unplanned lessons actually! Yet the audience were strangely subdued last night. Admittedly, there are some great lines, as you would expect, and laughter ripples did occur, but there are elements that are meant to be mind expanding and inspirational; yet came across as Bennett attempting to exercise a kind of prowess over us all through his own creativity.

This is a play that was voted the Nation’s favourite in a recent poll undertaken by the English Touring Theatre, and there is an element of stereotypical characterization that remains relevant and so I see why the theme is popular. Yet snobbery surrounding university placement and performance is rifer than it was in Bennett’s university days and extends beyond applying for an Oxbridge place. Also, to portray a teacher, who chooses to take an alternative approach to his work, as eccentric, is somewhat predictable and other outcomes are pretty predictable - so there is very little overall that surprises you.

I have to mention too the heightened awareness of safeguarding issues around children in recent years, especially those true life cases where abuse has happened within institutions committed from people in a position of trust, and this being featured in this play is more of a comedy squelcher than a comedy injector; so this thread of the storyline is simply not funny. Headmaster (Christopher Ettridge) will quite rightfully have Hector’s cards marked over this indiscretion, unfortunately this makes Hector’s ultimate sentimental ‘send off’ seem out of place at the play’s end. We lack endearment for Hector and for everyone else come to that. It is quite unusual to not have at least one character that you are routeing for or who has won your affection.

I have expressed strong personal opinion here and I would suggest keeping a sharp eye on published reviews to see how other critics view it.

I attended press night at The Belgrade Theatre, Coventry on Tuesday 04 February. This review also appears at Remotegoat 

The cast of The History Boys
Photography by Matt Martin

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