Alan Bennett’s The History Boys is a masterclass in clever and referential writing. With one of the best scripts in contemporary theatre, lively and packed with emotion and humor, it is hard to stage this show badly, if you can reinforce the script with the right tools.
In the midst of applying for places at competitive, prestigious Oxbridge colleges, we follow a group of students. All intelligent, all inspired to learn and pleased with their own mental faculties, they enter into a ‘General Studies’ class led by Hector (John Wood). Hopeful to increase the school’s national academic standing, the Headmaster (Paul Goodard) recruits young teacher Irwin (James Mackay) to prepare the boys for their final exams. History is storytelling, he teaches, and the two educators find their opposing views brought to a head when ‘General Studies’ class time must be shared. The students, bright and teenaged as they are, have their own lives to deal with.
Swinging from scenes in French to schoolboy confessional to film re-enactment to poetry recitation, this is a show that expects you to keep up and makes no apologies for its breadth of knowledge, which can be breathtaking in its mental agility.
Certainly, this production comes very close to being spectacular, and as breathtaking as it needs to be. Performed with collective rigorous verve, the show – carried on the backs of its young cast of schoolboys – effectively leaps off the stage. It’s so alive it’s hyper-alive, and for a script that moves at a cracking pace, it’s more than fitting.
At times, however, this pace felt more chaotic than masterful; director Jesse Peach coaxed definitive characterisation and commitment from his cast, but perhaps could have benefited from a little moderation, a little more refined pacing — at times the production was overwhelmed by the script.
Wood is the much-lauded star of this production as old educator Hector, eccentric in teaching method and private procilivities, but his performance is not the cornerstone or strength of the production; rather, Wood was a ltitle left behind by the sheer energy of the other actors on stage. Heather Mitchell delighted (and seemed to delight in) her role as Mrs Lintott, a dry, seen-it-all teacher dripping with satisfyingly delivered profanity.
As Irwin, the young, new ringer of a teacher, Mackay was compelling, a rare command of stillness in a frenetic show that demanded attention and respect. He is magnetic on stage with a wealth of talent, an actor we are lucky to have on Australian stages.
The boys themselves are uniformly excellent, but it is Matthew Backer as lovestruck Posner that draws the most attention – as he should. Utilising the incredible tonal quality musical theatre audiences will remember from Jersey Boys, he wins hearts with musical interludes and an intelligent reading of the intellectual in love with the school’s most attractive, confident boy. Backer is the most dynamic character on stage in a play crafted around a force of dynamism; a real treat to watch.
Aaron Tsindos too is exceptionally good, as pseudo-narrator Scripps, sincere and likable, and Lindsay Farris as Dakin, hero among boys, is affable and appealing.
This show is worth a look-in if you’ve never seen it staged, if you’re a fan of the film, if you love art and theatre. It isn’t afraid to ask you to think, and if you find yourself occasionally dozing off at the theatre – get ready to wake up.