REVIEW: The History Boys
The History Boys demands a livelier production to match the scintillating wit of the script, says Jamie P. Robson.
I’m a big fan of The History Boys – the play. Alan Bennett’s wickedly sharp script is one which can provide the foundation for a night of powerful theatrical entertainment, one which can move each audience member from laughter to melancholy via deep contemplation on the way. Properly realised, it’s a delight. But matching the promise of the script is no simple task, and, sadly, this production isn’t able to sustain the necessary vibrancy to do justice to the words on the page.
The play follows a group of eight working class, northern lads, who are all preparing to apply for Oxford or Cambridge. As they do so, we observe the delights of their intellectual explorations, the struggles bred by their inchoate sexuality, and the glee of their day-to-day banter. That playful classroom dynamic is key to the success of any stage production. In the script, witticisms fly across the classroom at the speed of thought: the impression one forms of this group is one of highly intelligent, highly charismatic boys; and the theatrical effect can be one of intensely dynamic comedy.
That essential verve is what is most sorely missing from this production of The History Boys. Conversations progress, but don’t fly as they should — and Bennett’s sparkling dialogue is often considerably deadened as a consequence. The feeling that these characters on stage are busy remembering dialogue and upcoming cues — as opposed to engaging in spontaneous exchanges — remains a little too hard to shake. It just seems in need of more rehearsing, more polishing.
Not to say that the play doesn’t offer some enjoyment. For one thing, there are some laudable performances: Simon West’s Dakin entertainingly treads the line between arrogant and charming (emerging as charmingly arrogant); Stanley Thomas also impresses as Posner, eking out both the humour and poignancy of his role; whilst Jasmin Rees, when her character Timms was the focus, brings a vitality to the stage which was too often lacking.
Some of the other performances, however, are less consistent, and often the actors are wont to drop out of character when the spotlight shifts focus. This detail might be forgivable, but without the maintenance of energy – of a sense of life – in the background the play loses that excitable atmosphere so inseparable from a classroom of extremely bright, unruly, mischievous boys, and the pacing suffers accordingly.
This production of The History Boys, then, is a tale of sadly unfulfilled potential. The tenderness and comedy of certain scenes offer glimpses of the heights to which director Gaia Fay Lambert could have perhaps taken the show, under different circumstances. The show as it stands, however, lacks the exuberant pace and dialogic fluency necessary to amplify the humour and drama promised by the script, and thereby make this play as excellent as it deserves to be.