(reviewed at the Rhodes Arts Centre, Bishop’s Stortford on 16 March).
If you’re an arts complex with professional actors as well as a thriving stage school attached, then Alan Bennett’s The History Boys is an ideal choice of production. As well as the adult staff members at the fictional boys’ school in the 1960s, there are the students – as mixed a bunch as you’re likely to encounter then, now or in the 1950s on which Bennett drew from his personal experiences.
Some of us were lucky enough to be taught by charismatic as well as dedicated teachers – I know that I was, though not by anyone quite as maverick as Hector. Matthew Ward makes him into less cuddly than some other actors’ characterisations; it’s as though he is deliberately courting disaster from our first glimpse of him, motorbike-revving as though he had just materialised from another planet.
Sue Last balances this with her straight-forwrd Mrs Lintott, a no-nonsense type who teaches efficiently but without ever stirring her students’ imaginations. Then there’s Jeremy Small’s Headmaster with his sights set on Oxbridge places. It’s a portrait of a man who lacks true authority.
As Irwin, parachuted in to polish the likely university candidates, Jack Downey offers a well thought-out portrait of a driven half-failure who knows what will work in certain circumstances and eventually manages to apply these lessons to his own career. Downey is flint to Ward’s fire, which is at it should be.
Jeanne Stacey’s production has a set by Douglas Heap which, with its simple foreground of school chairs and tables, keeps the action flowing. Of the boys, Joseph Vaiana’s brash Dakin, Joe Llewely’s Posner slowly coming to terms with his homosexual instincts, Will Edden’s chirpy Timms and Daniel Boulton’s bovine Rudge stand out.
The History Boys runs at the Rhodes Arts Centre, Bishop’s Stortford until 19 March.