A lesson in boys being boys

Boys being boys:Tom Rhys Harries (Dakin), (Regé-Jean Page (Crowther), Nav Sidhu (Akthar), Timms (Edward Judge, in the lead)

The History Boys,

Sheffield Crucible

****

ALAN Bennett's unmatched art lies in his gift for deftly touching upon the hush-hush, recondite and rarely spoken about in such an inoffensive, sly and congenial way that political incorrectness becomes, deliciously, de rigueur.  

Bennett has yet to touch on badger culls or turn his pen to a full-length slapstick about cancer; although aches and pains in the elderly often feature in his output (Talking Heads); or to go to town on racial peculiarities – though he has chanced on that too, both in his monologues and in his wildly acclaimed play The History Boys, where one boy character is Jewish and his classmate a Muslim.  

This was a coming home. Bennett's play is set in Sheffield, source of its most famous line (‘I'm a Jew. I'm small. I'm homosexual. And I live in Sheffield. I'm fucked'; and where the play's latest production, starring Matthew Kelly in the Richard Griffiths role of beleaguered retirement age schoolmaster, Douglas Hector, in a new staging by Michael Longhurst, positively sprawls across the Crucible stage. 

Not quite Snooker, perhaps, but the potting is just as finely aimed; and balls, in the shape of comely, bright sixth formers' squeezable testicles, play quite a major role, thanks to Nicholas Day's blissfully outraged Headmaster, a strongly Yorkshire rival to Clive Merrison's vignette of vignettes on stage and film, and to Julia St. John's acutely observant, unjudgmental, though frankly too laid back Dorothy Lintott (bizarrely nicknamed ‘Totty').

St. John's two exam-time set-pieces are galvanisingly delivered, great stuff; but some of Bennett's best single lines (even the pizza joke) are muffled or muffed in a lacklustre way Frances de la Tour might fairly have winced at. 

Matthew Kelly as Hector

The Crucible space is indeed gaping, cavernous, but it's filled by the Headmaster's  almost barbed-wire ringfenced office, complete with ravishing-bottomed girl secretary (Stacey Sampson, rather good), who ruts with the form star on the head's desk and then plays an unwitting part in reversing Hector's dwindling fortunes.

I liked the office itself (designer Chloe Lamford): it added. But the parallel, ponderous, roll-me-out Staff Room added absolutely nothing.

 Like others I found the boys' periodic explosions into hyperactivity, a noisy swirl of uniform maroon a bit unnecessary, though a flair up of stage business was in a way apt and some was brilliantly plotted (kicking desks over is actually hard to perfect), presumably by Imogen Knight, giving a new twist to the choreographer's art. Perhaps just a good idea run riot; more third form than third year sixth. 

 The songs were a different matter: each one, as in Samuel Barnett's and Jamie Parker's gorgeous celluloid simpering, blossomed here. One bonus is that several of the boys get a song role, or else a part in the classic film guessing games (Trevor Howard, Margaret Lockwood. Celia Johnson et al.) which are part of Hector's classroom partyings.

So Joshua Miles's Lockwood (coincidence!) and Regé-Jean Page's Crowther, not to mention the thoughtful and considerate Akthar (Nav Sidhu) - no first names even though Bennett relocates it to the 1980s, but all three highly polished performances - get a bit of the limelight, and revel in it.  

Inevitably that spotlight dwells on the class's two young superstars, one of whom dotes on the other (Posner, younger than the rest, Dakin assures Hector; though the Jewish boy himself just claims he's matured later or is still in a retarded phase: one  point slightly elusive in Bennett's scrumptious script).  

One of the things one liked about Michael Longhurst (who directed two former History Boys, James Corden and Russell Tovey, at the Old Vic, and more recently Brokeback Mountain's Jake Gyllenhaal in New York; in April he launched Rory Mullarkey's savage wartime play Cannibals at Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre) and his assistant director Jon Pashley's ensemble was certain unexpected clarities that blossoms from unexpected muddyings.

 Tom Rhys Harries' Dakin may be delicious, to be salivated over, in a way the National's savvy Dominic Cooper wasn't: there, cynicism ruled; here, how could the Irwin resist? (‘Give him a chance, he's only five minutes older than we are', puts in Will Featherstone's wonderfully cast Scripps, the ever observant, confided-in narrator who tosses off full-blooded scores like Liberace).  

But Rhys Harries, surprisingly touching, has a diffidence that Cooper simply didn't (except when each confesses to being unnerved by their awe at Irwin's intellect). As a result, the counterpoint between Rhys Harries and Oliver Coopersmith's huggable, surprisingly confident Posner, becomes finer and subtler.  

Oliver Coopersmith as the poetic Posner - 'a Jew, short, gay and living in Sheffield'

It's as if Posner, here virtually the form shop steward, and uplifted by his effortlessly deployable gift of song (Coopersmith has a very different voice from Barnett, less lullingly feminine, but he delivers it fabulously), were an age above that assumed, and Dakin a form lower. Either way, when this Dakin makes his move on Irwin, or fumbles the delectable Fiona, you can watch the pocket billiards and testosterone jiggling. Only the famous kiss bestowed on Posner fell short: in joyous irony, Cooper did it better. 

Much though one admired these two, the real finds of this show lay elsewhere. Easily the hero of the first half, and sometimes later too, was Edward Judge's Timms: chunky and hearty and deliberately in the James Corden vein; but every word and line Judge uttered achieved the right volume, the right timing, the right gesture, the right nuance.

This is an actor worth watching close up, because Judge already has a technique way beyond his years, and scored vocally and visually every time. A natural for this ‘chubby' part, he is a strong cert for any leading role, with girth or without. 

Ross Anderson, who debuted in 2010-11 at the Barbican Theatre as the gung-ho Rossco in the Laurence Olivier Award-winning Black Watch, about the regiment in Iraq, got the unawares bitterness and smugness of scout's son and rugby star Rudge (blue-eyed black belt of the Christ Church First XV, and brains behind Rudge Homes, carpeting the Yorkshire green belt) every bit as well as Russell Tovey in the movie. 

And Matthew Kelly concocted a hugely sympathetic Hector, stooped, easily distressed, avuncular, classroom-war-torn and nursing a massive motorbike, whether Harley Davidson or Yamaha I couldn't see. Kelly brought huge affection and deep pain to the boy-cuddling (actually it's Posner – not churchgoing Scripps - who cradles Hector, on the great breakdown scene) and devil-may-care boy-slapping, and to those glittering, never-to-be-forgotten Bennett lines; though a few school nuggets, as with Mrs. Lintott, got unaccountably lost.   

One more salient criticism was that Kelly and Coopersmith, possibly director to blame, took Thomas Hardy's ‘Drummer Hodge' at a lick: a proportion of the pathos got knocked out of it (though the Rupert Brooke comparison worked). This scene must melt, or it is nothing. Peter Borsada, not yet a sixth-former when he played Posner in the Loft Theatre, Leamington's amateur staging, delivered Hodge far more expertly. Bennett achieves the most extraordinary osmosis, or synthesis in this almost climactic scene: Posner and Hodge and Hector unite to become one, enfolded in a ditty of Death.

It is the moment in The History Boys where mortality is most brought home. It has to be perfect. Coopersmith, already, at 20, has an impressive running repertoire: aptly short (presumably not the other three, though versed in on-screen gay dalliance, thanks to BBC2's Grandma's House) energised this production with a thumpingly, as well as achingly good performance. (Posner is a plum role, but a viper of a role too, as so much hangs on him). Like Barnett, a case of old head on young shoulders. 

Star in the making - Edwin Thomas as Irwin in rehearsal with Kelly

The staggering thing, however, about The History Boys at Sheffield's Crucible is that the greatest impact was made by an actor who has not even appeared in a major professional production before this: one who is just out of acting school, and literally ‘five minutes older' than the boys.  

Edwin Thomas – he did in fact appear in Selina Cadell's The Way of the World at Wilton's Music Hall (he had already played Kite, the daft main role in The Recruiting Officer, so can we add raunch and Restoration Comedy to his skills?) - has a dozen roles at the Guildhall School behind him, two of which speak volumes: the title role in Hamlet, and Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Modern Languages at Oxford delayed his professional launch, but added a Leontes to his credits. 

Thomas enmeshed the audience with his first sortie on stage (‘grow a moustache'), and he never really lost that momentum. He made this production whizz. Irwin, this cocky young graduate of Bristol not Oxford (much hangs on that), takes it on himself to pull off, through the boys, what he himself could not achieve. It's an extraordinary parallel to Hector, who suffered the same youthful rejection but pours into the boys everything he thinks Oxbridge, and crammer-Grammar Schools, should be, but aren't.  

For an old hack like Hector, it's like fending off a particularly venomous new class brainbox. Thomas, E, like most show offs – Dakin is another, though more controllably so - just can't help dazzling. With his heady intellectual mix, even the perter boys get their knickers in a twist. Cocky and nauseous and smug though Irwin may be, this performance was infectious. No wonder they all goggled.  

In none of the previous productions I'm aware of has it been made so clear that Irwin is, despite all, the hero of the day. He was like a top scorer for Oxford United. This felt oddly like watching Alan Howard, David Warner, David Tennant, Nicky Henson or Alex Jennings making their first Stratford walkout in Henry V (or VI), Hamlet or Romeo. It would be difficult to think of a more impressive, shattering debut. We may see a bit more of Mr. Thomas. To 08-06-13.

Roderic Dunnett 

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