This review was originally written for The Public Reviews
One wonders whether it is possible not to enjoy a production of The History Boys, so engaging is Alan Bennett’s universally acclaimed tale of academic ambition, sexual insecurities and oh-so-inappropriate student-teacher relationships, which debuted at the National Theatre almost a decade ago. Certainly, the adaptation offered by university students at the Oxford Playhouse is no exception; its combination of rapier wit, intelligent direction and commendably proficient performances results in a thought-provoking and thoroughly entertaining production.
Recently voted the nation’s favourite play, The History Boys tells the story of eight bright working-class students at a Sheffield grammar school whose pushy headmaster (Barnaby Fishwick) insists apply to Oxbridge to continue their education. Trapped between the quote-filled teaching of the culturally dignified ‘Hector’ (Benedict Morrison) and the unashamedly audacious tuition of Mr. Irwin (Harley Viveash), they explore the relevance of education, the moral integrity of teaching and the flexible veracity of history itself.
Competent performances abound; Viveash’s languid Irwin is laudably understated, Fishwick’s headmaster is played with hysterical pedantry, and Tommy Siman is thoroughly believable as the cocky Dakin, whose confidence and good-looks attract the affections of Luke Rollason’s equally praiseworthy fellow student Posner. In truth, there is no weak link, and the entire cast delivers a remarkably convincing ensemble performance.
Director James Lorenz has clearly not strayed far from the original production although, with a play as iconic as this, it is debatable whether it would be wise to do so. Presumably drawing inspiration also from the 2006 film adaptation, which starred the original cast, Lorenz is notably cautious.
The extension of the musical interludes is perhaps his most noticeable interpretation, and it is an inspired one. As Rollason’s Posner tenderly sings to the piano accompaniment of Nathan Ellis’ likeable Scripps, a tangible sense of reflection is created, a powerful tool in stressing the play’s thought-provoking subject matter.
Occasionally, the snappiness of Bennett’s script is missing during classroom scenes. The playful interaction between teacher and student can seem slightly forced, although the humour is seldom lost as a result.
The play is at its stirringly poignant best, however, in the softer, more contemplative scenes. Staff room conversations between Hector, Irwin and Mrs Lintott (Claire Bowman) are a delight, and the dry wit and blithe asides are enjoyably naturalistic. As the play progresses and the plot’s deeper themes unfold, these pensive moments become thoroughly absorbing, thanks largely to the estimable restraint of Bowman, Viveash and Morrison.
Irwin’s observation that at Oxbridge, a devotion to theatre inevitably translates into a poor degree is delivered with discernible irony, and one can only hope this remark carries no significance for those involved in The History Boys. Their engrossing, if understandably unadventurous, adaptation of Alan Bennett’s modern classic is thoroughly recommendable and moreover, demands their further commitment to producing similarly praiseworthy theatre.