The History Boys by Alan Bennett
Alan Bennett's The History Boys is a near perfect example of what we have come to know (and either love or hate) as the well-made play: grand themes, considered structure and form, and characters meeting, often quite circumstantially, in a unique time and place on their journeys through life. Like many such beasts, however, it owes a significant debt to stories that cover similar terrain – and in the case of The History Boys, that debt is to Tom Schulman's Academy award-winning screenplay for Dead Poets Society (1989) and the many and various direct quotes from an array of poets, writers and philosophers that lend the play it's literary talk. But the intellectual and theatrical rigour is all Bennett's; and war, cinema, faith, religion, politics, philosophy, art, poetry, literature, sport – and of course, history – are all stunningly illuminated, rightfully ensuring that his play deserves, if not entirely, its "modern classic" status.
The History Boys concerns itself with eight boys from Cutlers' Grammar School in Sheffield, England who are preparing for their entrance exam into 'Oxbridge' (a composite of the UK's prestigious Oxford and Cambridge Universities). Cutlers' is "low in the league" and its headmaster desperately needs to secure its status and reputation as one of educational over-achievement.
This Boroondara Theatre Company production, under the razor-sharp direction of Bryce Ives, slowly rises and ultimately soars above Bennett's over-arching tendency towards obfuscation. Ives has literally incised this voluminous play and first exposed, and then connected with, the rich vein of dramatic torque that really powers it: love – in many, if not all, of its guises … young, illicit, of-self, unrequited, flowering, erotic, destructive, but ultimately redemptive. The History Boys may well appear to be about the various styles of education and the purposes they serve, but Ives is more determined that we will remember this play as a great love story – no more beautifully realised than in Chris Gaffney's perfectly-pitched English/General Studies teacher 'Hector' whose love of the arts … and his boys … is the play's foundation stone.
Ives is rewarded by the performances of his astonishingly talented ensemble lead by Luigi Lucente's dazzling star turn as the piano-playing class stud 'Dakin', Peter Maver's besieged and befuddled 'Headmaster', Elliot Roberts' sweet 'Posner' and Stuart Daulman's charming 'ruggers'-mad 'Rudge'. Beryle Frees (as the somewhat unforgivably under-written History Teacher Mrs Lintott) warmed up to take on the play's famous monologue about the role of women in history, and Tristan Lutze (as tyro Teacher Irwin who is brought in to coach the boys in the lead-up to the exams) searches for his identity and purpose through the minefield of unrestrained, youthful exuberance and curiosity that surrounds him with a marvellous performance of understated sensitivity, conflict and confusion.
But this intelligent, finely balanced, emotionally raw and powerful production relies entirely on each member of the ensemble and James Cook, Gerard Lane, Riki Lindsey, Fabio Motta and Kevin David Newman each bring great skill, creative intelligence and boundless energy to their magical performances.
Jeremy Bailey-Smith's gorgeous set appeared to create more problems than it solved in the intimate Cromwell Theatre while Karla Engdahl's stylish lighting design matched the play's location-shifting demands – particularly through the use of the theatre's actual windows.
In the final tableau, when Bennett has capitulated to a typically English, stage-bound form of emotional manipulation, this Boroondara ensemble and its handsome production, stood rightfully proud, connected and truthful in the journey of great merit they had prepared and then shared with us … and the profound truth of the line "Art always wins in the end" was this exceptional company's reward – and ours.
This will be the hottest ticket in town – and for every good reason. Whatever you need to do to get a ticket, do it.
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