Talking to the Cambridge girls who are about to perform The History Boys

Jamie P. Robson chats to the brains behind the upcoming production of The History Boys about cross-casting, foreskins, and breaking the glass fourth wall

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Talking to a friend about The History Boys, I mentioned that the Pembroke Players were staging a production which featured girls playing some of the male roles.

“But it’s The History BOYS”, he said, emphatically. Touché?

Brain well and truly frazzled by the depth of his argument, my only resort was to go to the creative minds behind the production that’s getting everybody talking.

We gather at the prearranged coffee shop, and I meet my company for the next hour: Director Gaia Lambert; Assistant Director Ella Godfrey; and Jasmin Rees, who plays Timms (James Corden’s role in the original National Theatre run and subsequent film).

Jasmin Rees as Timms. (Photo credit: Freddie Dyke)

The conversation begins with general talk about the position women occupy in comedic theatre. Why is it that women, for example, in sketch troupes are either a minority or not present? The issue seems to be self-perpetuating, one of visibility and psychology: “If you don’t see female comedians,” says Jasmin, “if you don’t see women in sketch troupes, then you tell yourself that it’s because they shouldn’t be there.”

The paucity of funny women on stage, then, breeds considerable insecurity. Jasmin recalls that “the first sketch show I was ever in in Cambridge – Laugh You Long Time, at Girton College. I was the only girl. The guys are amazing, a lovely bunch, but for the first couple of weeks of rehearsals I was there thinking, ‘Was that audition funny, or were they just trying to fill a quota?’”

And that barrier isn’t easy to surmount, no matter the experience you gather. “You don’t want to be the shit woman,” she continues. “You worry that the audience are going to go, ‘oh the guys were hilarious but she was just there because they needed some more X chromosomes.’”

Unimpressed by the patriarchy. (Photo credit: Freddie Dyke)

The problem also stems from the image women are expected to live up to. Ella talks about the vulnerability of being publicly silly. “There is a lot of putting yourself out there for comedy, and I think if you’re seeing fewer women do it then it’s a bit more of a big deal.” Bred by a bombardment of airbrushed movie posters, the message that female actors must be physically attractive at all times is insidious.

The pressure to look good, Jasmin observes, means that “when you’re on stage you might think, ‘oh, I’m not going to act as well as I can because people won’t think I’m pretty, people aren’t going to think I’m fragile, no-one’s going to be attracted to me.’”

Jasmin remains optimistic, however, citing that progress is being made, especially at university level: “University is very much about trying new things, pushing boundaries, and rebelling against the norms, as it were. And since females aren’t the norm in comedy it makes sense for there to be attempts to try to overthrow that status quo — well, it’s not a battle like that, I think I’m playing it up a bit.”

With the female-led comedy Arsenic and Old Lace (in which Jasmin starred) selling-out last week, and now with the advent of a half-female The History Boys, Cambridge is seeing some change.

Director Gaia Lambert. (Photo credit: Freddie Dyke)

On the subject of optimism, what strikes me during the conversation is a notable lack of rage in any of these History Girls — there’s no bitterness. “There’s no point getting angry about it,” argues Jasmin. “I mean, yeah, you can throw your toys out the pram, you can be like ‘there’s nothing written for me’, or you can get out there and write something, or go audition for male parts, or cast women in male parts as a director.”

They were also keen to reject any sense of victimhood, since, as Jasmin comments, “we’re all white here and we’re talking about white women in comedy, and in the theatre. It is worth pointing out that there is very little non-white comedy in Cambridge – less than I thought there’d be. And if I’m not seeing very many women on stage and that makes me feel bad, it’s worth noting how shit it is for people of colour who are female, or people of colour generally who think they might fancy trying their hand onstage.” This lack of diverse role models is an issue at the centre of the recent #OscarsSoWhite controversy.

Girls just wanna have fun. (Photo credit: Freddie Dyke)

Once a fully gender-bending reinterpretation of the play was ruled impossible under the licensing rights, Gaia emphasises how agenda-less the cross-casting process was. It was about getting the most talented people into the play, she maintains.

“We had about sixty people auditioning,” Gaia remarks, “and about forty of those were women. And to go in and say that, even though we have so many amazing actresses here, we can’t cast them — it just seemed so limiting.”

The entire play only requires one woman for its cast, Mrs Lintott. Some productions do choose to put the secretary Dakin’s sleeping with onstage — though with no lines of dialogue written for her, this only expands the roles available for female actors to either Mrs Lintott or the Silent Sex Toy. But when so many of the characters in the play are not even Generic Male No. 1, but more accurately Generic Person No. 1, Gaia continues “there was no reason why they couldn’t be female.”

Has the cross-casting brought any tangible benefits to the play, though? An interesting layer of meta-theatrical humour has arisen from the decision, I’m quickly informed. Changed emphases of expression, subtle acknowledgments to the audience that yes, some of the cast members have boobs (and have never had foreskins) contribute to a different kind of fourth wall breaking humour, something out of reach for a conventional cast.

Assistant Director Ella Godfrey. (Photo credit: Freddie Dyke)

But the team is adamant to stress that the most interesting aspect of the experience was how so little of the play is changed by the casting choices. Gaia loves the play because of “how universal it is. And what amazes me is just how much the dynamic,” she adds, “has stayed the same. It shows just how irrelevant gender can be. Men and women are not that different — shocking headline.”

The casting of some characters, however, had to be treated with more caution. “We thought a female Dakin would be quite interesting, since he’s such a lad-type character,” Gaia comments. Ella clarifies, however, that “before the casting we knew that certain characters had to all be the same gender, since you don’t want, even when attempting gender-blind casting, to diminish the play by having a male and female playing out a homosexual relationship.”

Given that Bennett’s play is quite keenly concerned with exploring non-heterosexual sexuality, it’s a relief to hear that aspect of the production wasn’t approached carelessly.

Not every storyline would be unaffected by cross-casting. (Photo credit: Freddie Dyke)

I’ll leave the Director and Assistant Director to provide the parting shots. Ella (whilst emphasising that she has enjoyed our conversation) hopes it’s not one she’ll be rehearsing forever: “Hopefully at some point we’ll reach a point (I’m saying too many ‘points’) where we just don’t really need to have that many conversations about gender in casting.”

Gaia, meanwhile, wants to underscore how remarkably little the casting has changed the play: “I really like cross-casting. You can play around with it, make statements with it — but also, the fact that it doesn’t make a statement, since nothing significant about the play changes, is a statement in itself.”

The History Boys will be performed from the 2nd to the 6th of February, in Pembroke New Cellars. Watch out for our upcoming review.