Alan Bennett’s “The History Boys” first opened at the National Theatre in 2004 to huge acclaim and has since appeared on stages and screens globally; such is the show’s popularity and appeal that keeps audiences returning time and time again. This latest staging produced by the in-house team at the Wolverhampton Grand Theatre is an engaging, endearing, and genuinely entertaining interpretation of the original.
The story sees eight bright boys at a school in Sheffield being trained for their Oxbridge applications. Hector (Ian Redford) is their teacher, unabashedly against the curriculum and instead instructing the eager boys in poetry, French, music, arts, and whatever else takes his fancy. Their Headmaster (Jeffrey Holland) decides to hire in extra help in the form of recent graduate Irwin (Lee Comley) who battles to teach the boys how to think outside the box with their approach to History. The star-studded staffroom is rounded out by knowing lone female Mrs Lintott (Victoria Carling), who offers a dry and practical sensibility in contrast to the men on stage. As well as the pursuit of knowledge, pursuit of sexual desire is an overriding theme throughout the play with four characters experiencing homosexual inclinations and struggling with how to deal with them.
Director Jack Ryder has excelled in creating naturally poignant moments between the characters onstage, broken with lightning-fast debates and punctuated with moments of music; either raucous tracks accompanying video transitions projected on the back of the stage or sung by Posner (Thomas Grant) accompanied effortlessly on piano by Scripps (Frazer Hadfield). The stage itself is cleverly designed and minimal; with seamless transitions as walls and doors slide into place from the wings, with tables and chairs arranged as needed. It needs nothing else, and its understated effect allows the actors and dialogue to shine without distraction. Possibly the only distraction on stage is that of watch faces catching stage lights and firing reflections into the audience; perhaps this is something that wardrobe could remedy.
The dialogue itself is tricky, with dozens of interspersed quotations from poetry, film and more. This thoroughly talented cast deliver each line naturally and with clarity and pace; even the five or so minutes entirely in French; so it never becomes dull or isolating. The audience are like other members of the classroom, watching the tennis matches of words and laughing along at all appropriate moments. The rapport that the cast has developed is clear, and the dynamics between characters is perfectly balanced to present a lifelike snapshot of a true classroom and all the expected shenanigans that go along with it.
Thomas Grant as Posner certainly steals the show with an endearing natural sweetness as well as excellent comic timing, however each of the boys performances is developed and rounded with character. In his theatre debut Jordan Scowen stands out as Dakin with a commanding stage presence and believable self-confidence. Frazer Hadfield brings contrast in the more reserved and thoughtful Scripps who engages the audience seamlessly in numerous asides and short monologues, as well as providing musical interlude on the piano. Arun Bassi, Adonis Jenieco, James Schofield, Dominic Treacy, and Joe Wiltshire-Smith each bring different qualities to their boys that present each one as an individual.
There are some excellent moments in this show that are worthy of note; Victoria Carling’s delivery of Mrs Lintott’s monologue when she is finally afforded an inner voice, Lee Comley getting to flex his broadcasting muscles in a flash-forward to Irwin’s future, a hilarious re-enactment of Brief Encounter, and so many more. However Ian Redford’s portrayal of Hector is certainly the triumph. His ability to make the character simultaneously reprehensible and sympathetic provides the true conflict of the piece that will have audience members discussing and debating all the way home; exactly as Hector would want.
The History Boys runs at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre until the 22nd of February 2020.