history boys

Hector and the History boys. Frazer Hadfield, Thomas Grant, Arun Bassi, Dominic Treacy, Ian Redford, James Schofield, Adonis Jenieco, Jordan Scowen, Joe Wiltshire Smith. Pictures Tim Thursfield

The History Boys

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton


What a Grand revelation we find here, beautifully acted and directed to create perhaps the best production of Alan Bennett’s 2004 classic I have yet seen.

The last time I saw it, to be honest, it was all a bit sleazy, the aging English teacher Hector was a bit pervy, unsavoury and perhaps that is the fine line Bennett treads in his play about a group of A-level History students at a fictional boy’s grammar in Sheffield in the 1980s.

Here Ian Redford’s Hector is a rebel, a maverick English teacher who sees himself as providing the antidote to education, his role, as he sees it, is to impart a love of words, of language of literature and, his first love, poetry.

He also has a penchant for fondling his boys, the eight sixth formers hoping to gain places at Oxford. The class have even worked out a sort of rota for who rides pillion on Hector’s weekly Wednesday jaunts home – riding a motorbike one handed being an achievement in itself.

It is hardly normal, but somehow the boys go along with it, it’s Hector’s little foible, a quirk of his eccentricity, You cannot say it is harmless, but it goes no further, never gets out of hand, so to speak, and you suspect has been Hector’s weakness for years.

His role is to teach general studies, which he sees as waste of time studies, filling classes with anything not on the curriculum from the songs of George Formby and Gracie Fields, to scenes from Brief Encounter and a very funny improv scene in French of a visit to a prostitute.

head, Irwin and Hector

Lee Comley as Irwin, Jeffrey Holland as the head and Ian Redford as Hector

It is a lovely avuncular performance from Redford, but as time goes on we see him break down as he looks back on his life and finally faces early retirement – sacking being so messy – after the head discovers his . . . peccadillo.

We cannot condone Hector yet we still warm to him, he reminds us perhaps of a favourite teacher from our own schooldays, a teacher who was always unconventional, inspiring, different. We even have some sympathy for his . . . weakness

Jeffrey Holland’s head, Mr Armstrong, on the other hand is a driven man. The pupils are merely a means to an end, the end being a climb up the school league tables to compete with the likes of Manchester Grammar on the other side of the Pennines.

Hector with his education for life rather than exams is an anathema, a barrier to ambition, as is Mrs Linott, the excellent history teacher played by Victoria Carling. She teaches history, and does it well, looking at her A-level results, but that is not what the head wants. It is years since the school sent a history student to Oxbridge, and, by implication, the fault must lie with her.

So, the head brings in the cavalry, Mr Irwin, a supply teacher, Oxford chap, to polish up the current crop of history boys for the Oxford entrance exam. Lee Comley’s Irwin teaches the boys to question, to challenge history, be free thinkers and, to the dismay of Hector, to drop in quotes from the poems they have learned to emphasise or illustrate a point, gobbets as Irwin calls them.

Irwin’s arrival is hardly welcomed by Hector, who sees his teaching time squeezed to accommodate the newcomer, nor by Linott, who is being told in not so many words that she is not up to scratch. It generates some wonderful moments of bitterness from her towards the head and some glorious earthy outbursts, outswearing everyone else by some considerable margin.

Meanwhile their charges are Posner, played by Thomas Grant, a pupil who describes himself as “small, Jewish, homosexual and from Sheffield . .  I’m f***ed!” And that perhaps sums him up, although the lad can sing, soprano or counter tenor, take your pick.

Object of his affections is Dakin, played by Jordan Scowen, who is in the process of seducing the headmaster’s secretary, Fiona. We never see her in the flesh but hear all about her in Dakin’s description of progress in World War I terms.

Being an equal opportunities pupil Dakin also has a dalliance with Irwin,which comes to nothing as a result of the play’s dramatic end. Irwin, we discover, being a dormant homosexual among his other secrets.

Scripps, played by Frazer Hadfield, who also plays a mean piano, is the religious one with a notion to be a writer, noting everything down in his little book, a tip advised by Hector. He plays piano brilliantly for Posner’s songs and class moments.

Arun Bassi’s Akthar is the Muslin questioning history and Crowther, played by Adonis Jenieco is the artistic one, or at least the one who likes theatre and acting – something he is told by Irwin to hide at interview as Dons don’t like actors.

There is Dominic Treacy’s Timms, the chubby joker in the pack, and James Schofield’s Lockwood, the mouthy one who always has an opinion and then there is Rudge.

Rudge, played by Joe Wiltshire Smith, is the quiet one, almost surly, who religiously writes down every single thing said in class. He is the dark horse, the least academic, the least talkative, who sees history as “one f***ing thing after another”, yet is still in the game, the game in his case being rugby, at which he excels.

The eight work well as a unit, as a group, and as separate entities, Scripps and Dakin’s conversations for example, and they interact well with Hector and the somewhat uneasy relationship with Irwin.

It all leads up to a climax with the entrance exam results, Hector’s future now his . . . riding technique has been discovered, Irwin’s little secret and . . . well, if you don’t know the play, I won’t spoil it – come and see it, you won’t be disappointed.

We open with Irwin the TV presenter, and close in the same way, this time with Scripps as the journalist, and in an unChristian way, trying to expose him. The curtain falls as we find out the futures of all the History Boys.

Director Jack Ryder keeps everything flowing quickly and smoothly helped by John Brooking’s clever set.

Walls with a door glide in and out to create a classroom, the head’s office, whatever is needed while the upper rear of the stage is a vast video wall where we see the pupils, and staff in a real school (Thorns Collegiate Academy) which gives an authenticity hard to achieve on stage – the cast are not actors any more but teachers and pupils in a real school – video produced by Oli Loughran.

Anthony Aston’s lighting with pinspots highlighting dramatic moments adds to the atmosphere  with Ian Adams, of panto fame, giving interest and format to the musical staging.

The last production, Ladies Day, put a toe in the water, with this, the Grand has come of age as a producing house. It is a wonderful production which shows so many sides, highlights so many aspects of Bennett’s original. It is funny, at times a little sad, a coming of age and a glimpse of another age, long gone with poor old Hector well past his time. The result is very rewarding evening of high-quality theatre. To 22-02-20.

Roger Clarke


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