history boys Review

The History Boys Review by Katy Roberts

Words: Katy Roberts

It is fitting that the concluding production in the Crucible Theatre’s Sheffield season should be a revival of Alan Bennett’s celebrated play, the History Boys, directed here by Michael Longhurst. A fitting companion to the season’s first production, Simon Beaufoy’s The Full Monty, as both revolve around two groups of men searching for a way up and out of their current lifestyles to move on to something better, and greater. First performed at London’s National Theatre back in 2004, Bennett’s play focuses on a group of young male History students, who, having passed their A Levels, are now pursuing the elusive places available to study at Oxford and Cambridge University. Set within the confines of a Sheffield grammar school, the boys are watched over by a results-obsessed Headmaster (Nicholas Day), who brings in a young supply teacher, Irwin (Edwin Thomas, seen here in his professional stage debut), in order to try and get the boys sufficently prepared for their Oxbridge entrance exams. But it is the narrative concerning English teacher Hector – played here by Matthew Kelly, in a role made famous by the late Richard Griffiths – that resonates strongly here, the somewhat nervous laughter of the audience tinged with self-consciousness.



Despite this, the play remains as funny and wise as it ever was, showing us the lives of these schoolboys – particularly those of Oliver Coopsmith’s small, sad Posner, Will Featherstone’s witty and amiable Scripps, and Tom Rhys Harris as the preening school-star Dakin. Sadly, the other characters seem to take something of a back seat, though as an ensemble, they are incredibly strong.

Matthew Kelly’s portrayal of the Auden-loving Hector is terrific, furiously passionate about providing the boys with a cultural education, whether the information is useful or not, but also painfully vulnerable when his secret is discovered. But it is the character of Irwin who truly stands out here. A mixture of slimy self-satisfaction and preppy insecurity, Irwin is by far the most intriguing character, and this is an absolutely fantastic professional debut for actor Edwin Thomas.

Designer Chloe Lamford’s staging works incredibly well. Upon entering the auditorium, the audience is greeted by the fading lines of a badminton court on polished hardwood parquet, immediately evoking nostalgia and memories of monotonous school life. The stage is a clutter of desks, chairs, gym equipment and a piano, with a vast blackboard – all of which is pulled into play when needed. This worked well to give the play a sense of pace. The opening scene of the play, set against loud rock-guitar music instantly brought the scenery to life, as desks and chairs were shot across the stage at a lightning pace. However, at times, the scale of the space onstage meant that the actors were battling  against their surroundings – with their voices lost, drifting off into the piles of chairs and desks stacked behind them. This was most obvious in the first few scenes, and was not helped by having the character of Hector facing away from the audience in order to teach, which made the dialogue difficult to hear. A minor criticism, but one which could have been solved with relative ease and without taking anything away from the production. The lighting, consisting of familiar gymnasium strip-lights that flicker and move with the action was a nice touch, as was having Nicholas Day’s Headmaster’s office as a glass-walled box, as if the man himself is a speciman to be studied.

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This is a production that honours Bennett’s original work wonderfully, but one that is also more flashy and fiesty. Lovers of the original 2004 production – or the subsequent film – might disagree with the rock music soundtrack, and the energetic, boyband-ish dance routines that occur throughout, but it is engaging and visually exciting to watch, with a fantastic cast who truly capture the spirit of Bennett’s much-loved play.

The History Boys is at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre from 16 May until 8 June 2013. For tickets and other details, visit www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk.

Final Thoughts

Overall Score 4.1
Readers Rating
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