I was seventeen and fresh-faced from GCSEs when my new A-Level Literature teacher handed out copies of ‘The History Boys.’ They say you should never judge a work by its cover, but the school photo of the 2006 cast looked set to plunge me into agony over what seemed to be a dry play about a group of pompous Oxbridge hopefuls. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The state of education has become a topic of personal interest since studying both ‘The History Boys’ and Sociology A-Level. As a result, I positively jumped at the chance to take stock of redTIE’s production at the Apollo theatre in Newport. Often schools will take their respective classes on a jolly to the theatre to see ‘how the stage does it’, but our class was pacified with the film. However – belated theatre visit aside – the performance given by redTIE was an impressive treat worth waiting for.
Let’s attempt to use the subjunctive imagination that the traditional Hector is so fond of. It’s the 1980s. Thatcher is ever present and watchful as a hawk over Britain’s education system. The grammar school continues to reign supreme, and pupils across the country are vying for places at the Holy Grail that is Oxford and Cambridge.
Alan Bennett’s ‘The History Boys’ is a comic flavour of this thirsty competition, illuminated by a concoction of masculinity, sexual conquest, and the confusing pursuit of eloquent savvy. Bennett questions the role of education, utilising the play as a retrospective take on why he came to the decision to ‘wish away’ his own experience of the system. The audience is exposed to an intimate concern with regards to the purpose of curriculum and pedagogy in shaping young minds. It is this concern that the teachers melodramatically agonise over, whilst the oblivious students take advantage of it as a means of animating chaos (for a time!)
I’m comfortably stationed in the far corner of the balcony. The scene is set as I anticipated – an omnipotent teacher’s desk, conformist rows of escritoires, and piles of exercise books awaiting criticism. Just as I’m about to open my notebook, the lights go out, the ‘in music’ of the time thumps out of the the speakers, and eight burly and indefatigable boys cavort onto the stage in the thick of A-Level heroism.
The cast of boys was undoubtedly strong. They brought about a consistent presence of energy, charisma and intellect. Not a single one of them were static. I admired their precision in capturing the delicate threshold between childish serenity and the wider world ahead of them. Though the audience become familiar with each of the loveable chaps, we are also reminded that they are far from exempt from the partiality of the admissions process. By the end, the boys are a set of altered men, some for better and some for worse. This maturation over the course of the production was seamlessly executed.
Each member of the young cast brought something unique to the table. Rob Ellis gave a beguiling and emotive interpretation of Posner. Adam Richardson brought edge to Scripps as sidekick to Dakin. Adam Doggett had the audience reeling with laughter as Rudge. Sam Woodley’s portrayal of Timms proved cheeky and confident. And finally, the likes of Lockwood (Andrew Butcher), Akthar (Kieran Jenvey) and Crowther (Joe Davies) polished the performance with a peppering of well-timed quips and unabashed jeering.
The lead role of Dakin (played by Carl Burch) did much to consolidate the themes of masculinity and sexual conquest previously mentioned. Burch delivers dastardly dark comedy with tautness and charm, egged on by his friends. Dakin’s unapologetic pursuit of admiration is both hilarious and endearing, epitomising Bennett’s own confession of ‘sheer vanity’ in the pursuit of a scholarship. Moreover, these aspects of his character cease to fade when he leaves school, and we can’t help but giggle when he declares that he ‘likes money.’
As inquisitive as the peer group are, lurking in the background is the egocentric Headmaster (played by Steve Reading) who is relentlessly campaigning for an illustrious position in those all-important league tables. Reading seems to have trodden the boards enough to know exactly how to portray a character that is wearisome and irate, or in other words, ‘the enemy of culture.’ He does phenomenally well as one of Thatcher’s chargers, striding about the stage in a simultaneous fit of neuroses and ambition.
Also hinted at is the audacious sexism within the education system, channelled through the character of Mrs. Lintott (played by Fiona Gwinnett.) Use of body language and facial expression made for a glittering infusion of sardonic remarks and intelligible protest. I particularly loved the portrayal of Lintott’s passionate and powerful speech towards the end, when she discusses how ‘women follow with the bucket.’ Her boldness emphasises what all of us are thinking: women should not be corralled into subordination.
Central to the play is the polar opposition of Hector (played by Rod Jones) and Irwin (played by Dave Newton.) Hector is an ageing, educational hedonist who advocates ‘knowledge for its own sake.’ By contrast, Irwin is a bright eyed and bushy tailed teaching graduate, groomed and employed to feed the boys with the ‘facts’ as well as the obscure examination techniques deemed necessary to compete for prestige. The ostracism and fierce dialectics of the two characters makes for some thorough entertainment.
I admired Rod Jones’s interpretation of Hector’s character. He brings to life a stubborn, ruminative sage with a lack of self awareness that is the niche of comedy. Furthermore, I feel that Jones added a depth of humanity to Hector unseen in Richard Griffiths’ portrayal. Whilst there is conviction, obtrusiveness and illegality, there is also a blinding sense of sorrow in terms of the reasons for his persistent camaraderie. Jones’s performance is thought-provoking, leading us to deeply consider what effect knowledge has on our lives.
And finally, Dave Newton did a stellar job in conveying the abstract nature of Irwin, as well as the consequences of his methodology (e.g. Posner’s (played by Rob Ellis) Jewish beliefs becoming prey to Irwin’s flippant lecture on the Holocaust.) Though seemingly a bourgeois foghorn over Hector’s folly, Newton also makes effective use of subtlety to reveal Irwin’s inwardness.
Thanks for reading! If you would like to find out for yourself just how awesome redTIE’s production of ‘The History Boys’ is, then pop along this evening (14th April.) to the Apollo theatre in Newport. Doors open at 6:45pm, and the performance commences at 7:30pm.
Tickets are £8, and £5 for students.
For booking, visit www.redtietheatre.co.uk or call 07580563931.
Directed by Helen Reading
Sound and Lighting by Dan Burns
Reviewed on 13th April 2017
By Hannah Sothcott – The Anon Writers
More from Hannah at her blog: https://goodnessgracious2017.wordpress.com/