It is an unusual classroom where Thomas Hardy is recited alongside Bette Davis, where Nietzsche is debated to the sounds of George Formby, and French grammar is practised in an imaginary brothel, yet for the sixth form class of English tutor Hector the exploration of the ‘non-curricular’ is the order of the day. Alan Bennett’s The History Boys leaves its characters free from intellectual boundaries, academic confines and, at one point, even their trousers.
On the set of Sell A Door Theatre Company’s The History Boys, this same sense of educational freedom is instantly recreated. A set of posters adorn one side of the classroom-set wall where a photograph of Oscar Wilde poses inbetween film shots of Showboat and Carry on Cleo. The pursuit of knowledge, of a place at a prestigious university and of academic success is mixed up with desired – and undesired – sexual liaisons, light-hearted sing-song and many a comedic flirtation.
Set in ’80s Yorkshire, The History Boys explores the results when teenage hormones meet scholarly contemplation. After successfully completing their A-levels, a group of grammar-school boys are set to take their Oxbridge entrance exams, led by popular boy Dakin, played by Adam Lawrence; conscientious Posner (Lawrence Murphy); rugger-obsessed Rudge (Alastair Hankinson) and others, under the close tutelage of their English master Hector played by Richard Rycroft. However the schedule is challenged by the entrance of fresh-faced graduate teacher Irwin (played by David Hutchinson) whose controversial methods transforms the boys’ perception of history and they begin to question what Hector has taught them for so long. However, Irwin’s influence upon all the boys, including the most popular, Dakin, strays far from the strictly academic. The History Boys explores how history is made, how the seemingly trivial, inconsequential moments of life come to prove essential and how such moments can never be predicted.
Bennett questions constantly the perception of history, how it is measured, quantified, analysed and discusse,d but in The History Boys, it is comedy which features most heavily on the curriculum. The production successfully recreates an environment where witty banter and sharp repartee between student and teacher leaves the audience laughing non-stop. At times however, the performance lacks much of the pace of Bennett’s script, dialogue is skipped-over or left unstressed and the comedy is not exposed to its fullest extent. Yet the most perceptive elements of Sell A Door’s production comes in an intimate scene between Posner and Hector. The scene is emotionally intense yet frustratingly restrained, well-acted by both Murphy and Rycroft whose subtlety emphasises unspoken action over restricted dialogue.
The set design, by Richard Evans, is sparse and ugly, marked by squeaky brown floors, tacky plastic chairs and cheap fittings. It is successful therefore in recreating an ’80s classroom many in the audience would recognise. It becomes a space where the traditional roles of students and teachers are confronted, challenged and even reversed. Large windows reveal a corridor and lockers behind, which proves effective in dividing the front and back of the stage: boys swing their bags, shout and argue in the hall whilst their masters reminisce quietly and unseen.
It is perhaps exceedingly difficult to perform a play as popular and as successful as The History Boys. It enjoyed a sell-out run when it premiered in 2004 and became a film, starring the same cast, in 2006. Sell A Door’s rendition is the first professional performance since the original production yet it fails to effectively render much of the refreshing comic originality which is so evident in Bennett’s writing. However, it is undeniably perceptive in its exploration of the less brash, non-egoistical moments of sentimentality within the play. Indeed, the production ends insightfully in the form of a school-photograph tableau; a constant reminder of school days removed from the effects of time, and history.
History Boys is playing at the Greenwich Theatre until 24 June. For more information and tickets, see the Greenwich Theatre website.