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The History Boys

(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.

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2016

The History Boys

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 6 July)

Sell A Door Theatre Company may be only six years but there’s no mistaking its maturity. Kate Saxon’s touring production of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys emphasises this. One of Libby Watson’s trademark sets both defines the timelessness of the story of a class of boys in their final term before university and indicates (through understatement) its non-real aspects.

The core of any production of this play lies as much in the casting of the eight pupils as with the four teachers with whom we, as the audience, engage. Here the stand-out performances are those of Steven Roberts as Posner, the misfit Jewish boy who uses his innate ability to camp things up as a weapon as well as a shield, Sid Sagar as quiet but brilliant Akthar and Kedar Williams-Stirling as at-ease-in-his-black-skin Daykin.

Richard Hope brings something more complicated to the key role of Hector, charismatic maverick teacher befouled by his own weaknesses as well as strengths, all too eagerly exploited both by colleagues and students. Christopher Ettridge’s apparatchik of a headmaster, so brisk in jumping on Hector’s sexual fumblings while patently seeing nothing wrong in his own advances to his secretary, contrasts beautifully.

Then there’s Irwin, the man with his own secrets who has been brought in to groom the boys for Oxbridge entrance examinations and interviews. Mark Field makes him so tight-lipped and buttoned-up that we all but squirm, while accepting that his approach may not win hearts but can ensure university (not to mention media) success. Susan Twist is the no-nonsense Mrs Lintott, who believes in facts and dates but is so much warmer than any Gradgrind.

Top marks all round.

The History Boys runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 11 July.

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2015