first night

The History Boys

James Morton goes back to school with the History Boys

Due to the overwhelming popularity of this particular production of The History Boys, I was unable to see the show until the Saturday matinee. Queues of students and lecturers alike crammed the street outside the Assembly Rooms each night, whilst warnings appeared on the DST website reminding us to book online or arrive early to guarantee a ticket. The show has clearly been, as the most recent DST email defines it, a ‘runaway success,’ the must-see event of this term’s theatrical calendar. As a result, my expectations were high, and this production of The History Boys did not disappoint.

 The set itself, though relatively bare, was impressive. Whilst waiting for the show to start, we were presented with posters stuck upon the front of the stage, immediately introducing the theme of education even before curtain-up. To the right, a piano with a motorcycle helmet on top, an intriguing precursor of the play’s poignant finale and a surreptitious reference to its most controversial theme. With its numerous scene changes, I can’t imagine that The History Boys is an easy play to stage, yet the use of a single set of trellises as a backdrop seemed both appropriate and practical, making for swift transition from scene to scene. Both the classroom and the staff room, despite featuring such sparse furniture, were instantly recognisable. My one critique of the set would be the act of shifting a trellis forward during a cross-cut scene in which Posner confesses his homosexuality to Irwin – in this instance, the abrupt movement of the backdrop made me think the stage was collapsing. Aside from that, the show made intriguing use of an appealing design, suggesting that in some cases a minimalist approach to set design can prove the most effective.
Undeniably, a vast part of the play’s success can be attributed to the actors involved. The “boys” themselves enacted Bennett’s depiction of raucous camaraderie convincingly, proving capable of performing as a group and as individuals, providing much of the play’s humour and an equal amount of its pathos. I was also intrigued to see elder actors (non-students) playing the teachers (Dorothy, Hector and the Headmaster), as this produced a far more convincing divide than we would have seen had students performed these roles instead. Each of the adult leads introduced something new to the play – whilst Dorothy was handled humorously and often used as the Voice of Reason, Hector was portrayed as the sympathetic yet unlikely hero of the piece, and the Headmaster was all defensive and officious with uptight, rigid body language. Ollie Lynes deserves special credit for holding his own against these elder actors in his moving portrayal of the clever but cynical young teacher Irwin, endowing a relatively irritable character with sympathetic attributes. Lynes presented the two sides of his role (both pre- and post-accident) equally effectively, emerging far more lethargic and defeated in his wheelchair-bound scenes than in the rest of the play. The contrast between the two actors’ depictions of Hector and Irwin seemed appropriate in demonstrating their two very diverse approaches to teaching, a key theme within the play, expressed particularly compellingly here.
 Direction too was skilfully handled: a play with so many characters would presumably be a challenge to put together, particularly during scenes which feature ten or more characters onstage simultaneously. The approach to spacing in this play was crucial to its effectiveness, and it was dealt with appropriately – the actors never blocked each other from view, and the characters’ hierarchy was clearly expressed through their positions onstage and their distance from the audience. One particular instance in which spacing was used to great effect was the final scene of the first act, in which Hector recites to Posner a heartfelt analysis of Hardy’s poem ‘Drummer Hodge.’ Through presenting both Hector and Posner only from profile, the audience became distanced from the elder character, depicting how Hector is becoming distanced from the boys as the old-fashioned mode of education he represents becomes gradually obsolete. Moreover, the use of lighting in the final scene was especially effective, particularly the fade-out upon Hector’s face at the very end of the show, making the play’s finale all the more poignant.
Furthermore, the use of visual effects was intriguing – an incredibly ambitious tactic that involved projecting school-themed videos across the stage between each scene. These videos were often humorous, and provided an appropriate distraction from the occasionally lengthy scene transitions. In my opinion, however, the technique was a little over done and sometimes seemed too abrupt, the music and the animation rearing up almost immediately after the last actor had delivered the previous scene’s final line, ultimately preventing us from absorbing everything that had just occurred, and in certain cases I felt that music alone would have sufficed. Furthermore, the lack of a projection screen for these videos hindered their impact, particularly at the start of Act 2, when Ollie Lynes’ face was obstructed by the Assembly Rooms’ ceiling décor. Nonetheless, it was an original idea, professionally executed, and almost gave the impression of watching a film, ensuring that the audience were not distracted for long in a play involving so many scene transitions.
Overall, I felt that The History Boys was a well-acted, well-executed project in regards to all involved. The acting, directing and staging produced a thought-provoking, memorable result. My main qualms are with the script itself, which some might deem too long with a running time of three hours. Nonetheless, the Assembly Rooms’ production of The History Boys was undeniably entertaining and truly deserving of its success.

4 November 2009

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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