The History Boys
Alan Bennett’s play is an ambitious and interesting choice for a house play. It asks some important and, at times, uncomfortable questions about education and growing up, always underpinned by Bennett’s characteristically impish and mischievous comedic understanding. This version, edited and abridged with real sensitivity and understanding by Fin Johnston, was an absolute triumph, leaving the audience moved and amused in equal measure. The direction, by Fin and Angus McConnell-Wood, was pacy and intelligent, using a fairly minimal stage to very good effect.
The boys themselves are precociously intellectual, irreverent types, with the exception of the rugby playing Rudge, who always needs to be told what to write down. It was hard to avoid the conclusion that there had been a spot of type casting going on when you saw 1st XV stalwart Sam Richards on the stage. I was, however, really impressed with Sam’s performance; he captured Rudge’s slightly bewildered belligerence with considerable flair. As an ensemble, they worked together very well, with even the comparatively minor roles of Crowther, Lockwood and Akhtar being given real comic gusto by Matt Foster, Fin Johnston and Tom Stileman respectively. The scene in which the classroom is transformed into a French brothel was an absolute tour de force – the memory of Timms (played with wit and panache by Guy Trevellyan) thrusting his chest into the face of Dakin will live with us all for a long time. Ollie Clark captured Dakin’s insouciant self-assurance perfectly. It was a shame to realise that this was the last time that Ollie and Ben Castle-Gibb (a splendidly thoughtful Scripps, whose breaking of the fourth wall was done with real theatrical intelligence) will tread the boards at Cranleigh; they have made an outstanding contribution to school drama throughout their time here. I was also enormously impressed with the youngest member of the cast, Christian Oldfield. He brought sensitivity and conviction to the role of Posner, capturing perfectly the teenage angst of a boy who feels a perennial outsider.
It is difficult to separate Hector from the Falstaffian figure of Richard Griffiths but I was enormously impressed with how Max McGibbon made the part his own. His gently tweedy, benevolent portrayal of the ageing schoolmaster, trapped in a loveless marriage and struggling with his own homosexuality, brought real pathos to the part and the scene in which he breaks down in front of the boys was superbly done. It was a remarkable performance. Hector’s philosophy of cultural enrichment is diametrically opposed by the pragmatic, goal-driven approach of Irwin, the young supply teacher, played with vulnerability and a geekish intelligence by Seb Leman. I particularly enjoyed the scene in which the two teachers are leading a discussion on whether the Holocaust can be taught; it was thought-provoking and enormously powerful. The female perspective was delivered with great assurance by Hattie Allison, who conveyed the genuine frustration of an able and gifted woman who, as a History teacher, finds herself forever commenting on “the various and continuing incapabilities of men.” These incapabilities were collectively embodied in the bureaucratic, self-serving Headmaster, played with almost Fawltyesque comic timing by George Collecott as a nasty and insidious philistine.
It is a long time since I have seen a house play that aspired to the emotional depth of this production. As an almost entirely student-led production, it was quite extraordinary. The pathos of Hector’s closing invocation to “Pass it on” lingered even as the lights went down and, personally, I was left feeling the most profound admiration for the efforts of all involved.