The cast of The History Boys, now playing at the Montecasino Theatre
The cast of The History Boys, now playing at the Montecasino Theatre

The History Boys

Director - Alan Swerdlow

The History Boys is probably one of the most provocatively funny debates ever written about what education is for and who is entitled to it. Here, playwright Alan Bennett distributes various aspects of himself among his imaginary students – diffident, witty, glib, theatrically camp, agonisingly repressed – all reconciling themselves to the differences between “being thoughtful and being smart”.

The action takes place at Cutlers’ Grammar School, Sheffield, a fictional boys’ school in the north of England. Set in the early 1980s, the play follows a group of eight clever pupils in pursuit of sex, sport, and admission into Oxford or Cambridge. The thing is, these lads lack that certain urbane, middle-to-upper class sophistication, but their headmaster (Michael Richard) has formulated a cunning plan to erase these inequalities as his brightest and best vie for entrance into the schools guaranteed to change their lives.

The story begins with the boys preparing for the Oxbridge entrance examinations under the guidance of three teachers – Hector, Irwin and Mrs Lintott – each plying sharply contrasting educational styles. Hector (Graham Hopkins) and Lintott (Louise Saint-Claire) are long-time teachers at Cutlers’ while Irwin (Theo Landey) is the interloper with his brash, cynical concepts and ruthless style of teaching. The two male teachers soon become rivals for the hearts and minds of the boys. Packed with superb one-liners, it is a provocatively hilarious exploration of the anarchy of adolescence and the politics of education.

Near the beginning of the play, the boys do a role-play entirely in French – a riotously farcical enactment of a Gallic brothel. But their long-time teacher, Hector, is really supposed to be teaching them English, not theatre or Français. Here, director Alan Swerdlow has done an excellent of job pulling the art of mime and spot on comic timing out of his young actors. They had the audience howling all the while never speaking a word of English. And this rollicking tableau is only ended when the headmaster enters the room, with new teacher Irwin in tow – discovering one of the pupils in the middle of the room sans pants.

The plotline explores the boys’ relationships, not only with one another, but also with their history and general studies teacher, Hector and the much younger Mr Irwin. The new teacher has been brought in mainly to explain how to fill in university entrance forms and how to react during their placement interviews. In other words, he is there to teach them the fine art of “BSing”.

In the classroom scenes – Jannie Swanepoel’s semi-box set could be any ordinary grammar school in England – the differing teaching styles of both men are clearly demonstrated. Hector teaches passion; how to express one’s feelings on a subject and the absolute love of it. In contrast, Irwin tells the boys to be more detached from the points they are debating; to be somewhat matter of fact about it. His strongest advice is to mostly steer clear of anything Hector has told them. It is only when, forced by the headmaster, that both styles are taught together. This is when the teachers discover their divergent approaches work together.

The History Boys is a play dealing with taboo subjects and is precariously easy to scuttle. Aside from near perfect comic timing, it requires charm and a light touch. Luckily, this production has plenty of all three.

Saint-Claire is particularly funny as Mrs Lintott, the only female character, whose weary but comic resignation makes sure that the play doesn’t sag. Her speech about the ineffectiveness of men concludes with the line “History is women following behind – with the bucket” is one of the best in the show.

Roberto Pombo’s Posner is comically touching, as he is more perturbed about whether or not his gayness is just a phase or the real thing – because he wants it to be the real thing. Pombo also gets to utter one of Bennett’s very best lines: “I’m Jewish. I’m homosexual. And I’m from Sheffield – I’m f*****!”

Landey’s Irwin, the new teacher with delusions of superiority, is fun to watch because his bravado is burnished with an undertone of absolute terror.

Clyde Berning, who plays Dakin, the sharpest pencil in the pack, is very strong throughout the play except for one scene that should have crackled with homoerotic chemistry. Here, he and Landey fizzled and nobody sitting in the dark was convinced that there was even the slightest attraction between their characters.

But, in spite of its few small shortcomings, this production of The History Boys sparks with brilliance.

It is an intelligent, exhilarating evening of theatre laced with more than a few upper echelon expletives, so it is not a play for children. The cast of 12 very capable actors also includes Matthew Lotter, David Schlachter, Gopala Chetty, Jeremy Richard, Marcel Richards and Asher Stoltz.

lThe History Boys plays at Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre until September 11.