This is a play that gets so many things right and a few things wrong. Alan Bennet’s writing is sublime, there is no doubt of that, but it is a tricky play to pull off on stage, and Alan Swerdlow’s production only manages it by a hair’s breadth.
Where the opening scene should have jolted the audience into the chaotic pastiche of Hector’s classroom, with its message to ‘Choose Life’ it instead chose to pass the time with an epic array of references, making the viewer more suspicious than enticed. Even the superb Graham Hopkins, though he soon got into his stride, started off as a Stephen Fry playing the part of Hector.
For my part, I only relaxed when Louise Saint-Claire stepped onto the stage in the second scene. Her clear cynicism, reflected in every part by her body language, immediately increased the stakes for best comedic performance of the night, and proved a great foil to Michael Richard’s paunch-emblazered, cup-and-saucer holding headmaster. From this point the show began to take flight, most notably in the uproarious French brothel skit performed by the boys in class.
The play is a battle between character and practicality, epitomised by Hector’s ‘You give them an education and I give them the wherewithal to resist it’, yet it lacked a sense of tangible danger. And I still longed to feel properly connected to any character, to share their agonies or their joys. Despite the richness of the play’s references it didn’t quite live up to the buldingsroman it should have been.
That’s not to say there wasn’t vivid characterisation. As teenagers will, the boys are clearly trying to define themselves whether by their pronouncements, their obsessions or simply by the socks they wear or the way they carry their school bag. Yet while feeling indifferent to the most of the boys individually, their debates about the politics of education and the performative nature of history made me want to jump up and join in. It is here that the play really shines.
Although littered with a lexicon of comedic moments the relatively simple scene between Hector and Posner was by far one of the most riveting I have experienced in a while. In that moment I could breath in those characters, could see their entire histories laid out before me. The movie impressions that all the boys do were also wildly entertaining. So much so that I now feel obligated to see those scenes for myself.
In the end the play lacked the pace it needed to keep the audience wholly engrossed. There were moments of brilliance, of competence, and of minor slip-ups (not least the slightly dodgy English accents). All things necessary to keep the wheels of theatre turning. What was missing was the precision to move those wheels in the right combination. The instances where it worked perfectly seemed at times incidental rather than deliberate. This is not to discredit the show, but merely to say it would benefit from a little more fine-tuning. I should not however, overlook the fact that the entire piece was put together in a mere four weeks. By now, a few days later, it may well have taken flight.
My verdict would be that this is a show worth seeing. Inevitably it does ride on the coattails of the original production’s success so don’t expect a multi-award winning show. But if you enjoyed intellectual battles at school, or have fond memories of a batty but passionate teacher, you will be in for an enjoyable night.
The History Boys runs at the Theatre on the Bay 12 July – 6 August 2011.