first night

The History Boys

Kate Wilkinson discovers the most appropriate play possible for a Durham audience.

It would seem that The History Boys is a play destined to do well in Durham. Classroom banter, literary jokes and, of course, the Oxbridge dream, all resonate with many a Durham student. At one point, the university even gets a mention by Mrs Lintott who remembers Durham as the place where she had her first pizza, ‘other things too of course, but it’s the pizza that stands out’, a line which was lapped up by the audience. The audience was remarkably full for a first night performance and the Assembly Rooms had an excited buzz before the start of the play.

The set was beautiful and a keen attention to detail was evident. The production team had even gone to the effort of having a small health and safety poster displayed on the wall. The classroom setting had been brought to the front half of the stage, curtailed by a partitioning wall which was decorated with numerous 80s-looking posters. Sometimes the tightly packed chairs and tables proved awkward for actors when entering or leaving the stage but on the whole worked to good effect. The lighting was more-or-less slick throughout.

The play is very much an ensemble piece and so much of it relies on the class of sixth form boys gelling well together. After a slightly jittery start, the cast grew in confidence and the pace picked up, sweeping the audience along with them in a thoroughly enjoyable succession of classroom scenes. The narrative is interrupted intermittently by the insightful retrospection of an older Scripps, played elegantly by James Hyde. The transitions were smooth and director Morten Jacobsen has done a good job in orchestrating a sophisticated play in a short period of time. As well as Scripps, some of the other boys occasionally address the audience with their personal reflections. These moments were a tad nervy and could do with a little polishing. I’m sure the cast can achieve this over the next few nights.

The acting was generally very strong with a number of stand-out performances, most notably from first-year Callum Kenny who shone as the vulnerable Posner. On top of his assured acting, Kenny was able to showcase his beautiful singing talent and proved his versatility in this wonderfully complex role of alternating confidence and low self-esteem. Though not a major role, Freddie Herman’s Headmaster was a formidable performance and Herman convinced with his nasal voice and twitchy movements. His comic timing was superb and had the audience laughing at his every appearance. Perhaps at times Herman risked being too funny during scenes of a more serious nature. As the only female role, Sophia Harrop’s Mrs Lintott had an authoritative presence. Harrop was cool and collected and executed Mrs Lintott’s wry, sarcastic tone convincingly. Xander Drury played Timms with gusto and provided many hilarious moments. His sheer commitment to comedy was revealed when he slammed his head on the table with surprising violence.

Sam Horbye played Dakin, the sharp, good-looking and lusty student. His performance was enjoyable although Horbye occasionally strayed into blind aggression and could have presented Dakin with an ounce more sensitivity. A few lapses in believability emerged (not only in Dakin’s scenes) including the flirtation scene between Dakin and the young supply teacher, Irwin, which lacked convincing sexual tension. Charlie Warner’s Irwin was a consistent performance.

This run of ‘The History Boys’ is appropriately dedicated to Richard Griffiths, the original Hector, who recently died. Will Hannam has perhaps the most challenging task of bringing to life such a complex character in the footsteps of a theatre legend. During the start of the play Hannam’s diction was a little muffled, rendering it difficult to make out his lines. However, Hannam proceeded to go from strength to strength revealing both Hector’s greatness and intense vulnerability. His physical mannerisms and grand voice echoed those of Griffiths’ but Hannam avoided impersonation with his sincerity of feeling.

For many, this show will be awaited with eager expectation due to the popularity of the original stage production and film so Jacobsen and his team have a lot to live up to. Despite this pressure, both cast and crew show commitment to Alan Bennett’s witty and thought-provoking script and execute it with almost consistent elegance. The questions raised by the play still feel topical and anyone interested in education will find much to consider. The next few nights are bound to be packed so I would definitely recommend seizing the opportunity to see this play.


Kate Wilkinson

6 June 2013

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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