A lost time of lost values

history boys

Richard Hope  as Hector, photographing his history boys with Susan Twist  as Mrs Lintott, Christopher Ettridge as the Headmaster and Mark Field as Irwin on the middle row. Picture: Matt Martin Photography

The History Boys

Malvern Theatres


ALAN Bennett’s best known play has arrived at Malvern Theatres courtesy of Sell a Door Theatre Company this week with a production that is a slick and witty ensemble show.

It is some time since students aspiring to study at Oxford or Cambridge stayed at school after completing their A Levels for a 7th Term to prepare for the scholarship/entrance exams, but The History Boys depicts the experience of such a group of scholars in an all-boys Grammar school some 30 or so years ago.

The scruffy room in which they are taught by Hector, Irwin and Mrs Lintott is typical of such schools of that period; it is switched about quickly from a room with rows of front-facing individual desks, to a circle of chairs for seminar-style discussion; the culture is intellectual but sloppy, informal and at times vulgar.

Hector has grown old and cynical and yet projects his love of words, language and literature with little attempt to focus on syllabus, exams or relevant topics. Irwin is placed to counter his influence by a Head who recognises something of Hector’s inadequacies and wants to improve his candidates’ chances of success with polish.

But Irwin is a fraud who never succeeded in making it to Oxbridge, scrippswho just encourages novelty and originality of thought for its own sake at the expense, if necessary, of truth and fact.

The play takes us through the autumn term as the students are prepared for the exams and their interviews, and brings them through to success in gaining access to the colleges of their choices.

The play explores a range of serious themes through the banter and witty dialogue: sexual repressions and expression, homosexuality and heterosexuality, paedophilia, the apparent randomness of much of history, the role of women in society, the nature of scholarship and the function of education and exams. “This is school, so it isn’t normal!”

Alex Hope as Scripps, the piano playing member of the class who, eventually, will become a journalist

Some of Hector’s conduct today would be unacceptable and shocking, but in that context it is merely brushed over as embarrassing and awkward.

The boys operate as an ensemble with their sexual banter and witty innuendo, and the performances were excellent, with variety and colour in their distinctive characters. Steven Roberts (as Posner), Kedar Williams-Sterling (as Dakin) and David Young (as Rudge) caught the attention with their fine performances, but outstanding for me was Alex Hope (as Scripps). His performance on the piano as well as his singing and acting revealed great talent, and his performance was natural and wonderfully calibrated.

The teachers were similarly played very strongly by Richard Hope (Hector), Mark Field (Irwin), Susan Twist (Mrs Lintott) and Christopher Ettridge as Headmaster. Despite Hector’s distasteful conduct, and Irwin’s hypocrisy, we are drawn into a warm response to these characters. As with the boys, they are distinctly human; we warm to their humanity despite the cynicism and the apparent absence of any real moral compass in the culture of the school.

The set was effective with a distinct area of the stage to provide a suggested staff room in one corner, symbolic elements hanging above the stage and the main area duplicating as a classroom and a boys’ common room.

The play is directed with pace and energy by Kate Saxon and there is tremendous variety and polish in this show. Overall the cynicism and the coarse elements of the play are balanced by the warmth, the wit and the humour communicated by a strong team. It is a very clever and entertaining commentary on the collapse of values in our culture towards the end of the twentieth century. To 04-07-15

Tim Crow



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