The History Boys (Alan Bennett)

 
Hackett Hall, Floreat

Beverley Jackson-Hooper (director)

A Playlovers production

reviewed by Neville Cohn

Since Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays was published in 1857, British school life, especially, but not exclusively, boarding school life, has spawned an avalanche of plays and novels ranging from the hugely influential Fifth Form at St Dominics by Talbot Baines Reed to Chris Edmunds’ riveting Before I Get Old. And Enid Blyton made a fortune writing twee novels about life in girls’ boarding schools.

 

The History Boys is meatier fare by far, with sexual undercurrents that would have been unthinkable in the works of Baines Reed and Blyton. Allan Bennett’s play is a distinguished contribution to the genre.

 

Hector, played by Tom Rees, is, on the surface, a teacher who grips his students’ attention by his quirky and not ineffective instruction methods – and his pillion-perching students’ genitals while roaring across town on a motorbike. The imagination boggles at the contortions that would have been needed to accomplish this curious feat.

 

Hector’s fate is sealed after this deplorable sex-on-a-bike activity is observed by the headmaster’s wife while peering through a shop window. There’s understated artistry on the part of Rees; his characterisation of the loquacious paedophile teacher was entirely convincing. So, too, was Kenneth Gasmier’s clipped-speech portrayal of Armstrong, the headmaster, coming across as a pompous, self-important windbag obsessed with the need for his students to gain enough credit to get into uni, preferably one of  “The Two”. Near play’s end, his clumsy dismissal of the paedophile Hector had the ring of truth.

 

Jordan Sibley was particularly credible as Irwin. With unfailingly clear diction, he came across as a rather repressed young school master so ashamed of having graduated from one of England’s lesser universities that he pretends to have been at one of “The Two”. When challenged on this point by one of the students, his pathetic attempt at covering up his lie was the stuff of fine theatre. His timidity and vacillation are no less apparent towards play’s end when he turns down a sexual favour offered by the bold and crass Dakin, played by Christian Dalton.

 

Irwin accepts a pillion ride from Hector. There’s an accident. Hector is killed but the young schoolmaster is sentenced to a living death in a wheel chair. Sibley was most impressive here, conveying a sense of quiet dignity in the face of a ruined future.

 

Beverley Lawrence was a polished Dorothy Lintott, a worldweary teacher who has seen it all. Bitterly, rhetorically she rails at the sadly few professional opportunities for women historians. Samuel Moscou was an altogether credible Rudge, the refreshingly straight-talking class jock, who, to Armstrong’s near-euphoric surprise, also gets his ticket to an Oxbridge future. Tim Burrows as Posner was convincing as a young man uncertain of his sexuality.

 

There’s no real weak link in the cast as a whole. It is only in a brief dance sequence that some of the boys seemed selfconscious and awkward.

 

 

Set designs by Cassandra Fletcher and lighting by John Woolrych did much to enhance and advance the changing moods of the play.

 


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