‘The History Boys’ is a comedy revolving around grammar school education and the debate between educating for exams and educating for life. At its core is a debate that, at some point or another, will touch everyone’s life: do we really just want to learn as a career boost, or do we want it to be integral to our love of life?
Of course, it’s debatable how far the word ‘comedy’ covers such a heavily weighted issue, but that’s for another time. For now, the limelight has to be on the show itself.
And what a show. I’ll admit, I took a while to warm up to the blaring music and the incessant banter between the boys and Hector, but once you caught up to the fast pace of their interactions it was hilarious from start to near-finish. The nuances of the boys’ movements, of Hector’s (Richard Hope) reactions, of the secretary at the door wiggling her fingers at Dakin (Kedar Williams-Stirling) really topped off their performances, moving beyond the medium of speech into something much more subtle and therefore much more provocative in terms of audience reactions. The stand out performances were definitely courtesy of Posner (Steven Roberts, previously of ‘Hollyoaks’ fame) and, in a more understated manner, Timm (Joshua Mayes-Cooper): in their own ways, both had a resounding presence, whether it was in the more empathetic manner of Posner or the larger than life cheek of Timms. That being said, these being selected as standout are marginal – the other boys were hilarious and touching, moving between the two artfully.
Regarding the teachers, I have to say that Irwin (Mark Field) was probably my favourite, but perhaps because I identified with the quirky, slightly geeky nature of his character more so than the others (although it’s not hard to discriminate between a slight geek and a slight paedophile). Seeing him and Hector begin to merge towards the end, despite the warning signals it brought, was rather poignant in how they had developed their knowledge of life and its needs. Comedy and tragedy, in this aspect, merged very closely together to leave an unsettled feeling in the audience. Hector in particular was a difficult one to place feelings upon: his impact upon the boys was astounding, but this came at an undeniably awful cost that tainted both Irwin and the boys, as seen in the flashes to Irwin’s future meeting with Posner. He was portrayed as weak in this sense, and if the impact of this was to leave audiences in a moral dilemma, it certainly worked well.
The tour ends at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre on 7th February but continues around the country until July 2015, and for both its lighter moments and its more serious underlying issue, it is worth dusting off the textbooks and heading back to school for this production.
Update: It is, rather ironically, I realise I’ve completely ignored the only major female character, who is rather angry about the omission of women from history as it is. How I could do this I don’t know; Mrs Lintott (Susan Twist) was a strength in casting and in the plot, providing a normality around which everything else was seen to be out of balance. She was, in my opinion, without fault.