The classroom setting may not sound riveting, but do not let that put you off. For one thing, seeing eight actors in their twenties creating more colourful and articulate versions of their juvenile personas is a delight in itself. For another, this is a play by veteran English playwright Alan Bennett, who has been writing and performing theatre since the 1950s and was part of the team that produced the 1960 satirical show Beyond the Fringe, which launched the careers of Peter Cooke and Dudley Moore. He is a master of timing, dialogue and the element of surprise.
The History Boys is part drama, part comedy and part musical. Bennett’s free ranging imagination stretches the possibilities of what could happen to a classroom of senior boys in a northern English town. They are devoted to their long-time teacher, known affectionately as Hector (Rhys McConnochie) whose bizarre teaching methods are designed to create cultured men rather than successful ones. Why aim higher than Sheffield University? It was good enough for him. McConnochie embodies this character with an abundance of shambling charisma and eccentric romanticism that makes both his boys and us forgive his erotic waywardness. It is acting of the highest order, but never dominates the rest of the performances.
The peace is disturbed when a new teacher arrives at the school. Irwin (Matthew Newton) is determined to get the boys through the entrance exams to Oxford and Cambridge universities. He tries to get them to think outside the square, to be smart and savvy, rather than come up with the ‘right’ answers, particularly in the field of history, where there is room for interpretation. Newton has a natural manner and a very comfortable stage presence, so that, when he is confronted by the unnerving student Dakin (brilliantly portrayed by Ben Geurens), he is able to add the perfect note of embarrassment.
The boys are understandably confused by the two teaching methods and, with two role models, the sexual threads of the plot become tangled. The eight actors that play the boys are a delight to watch, sprawled behind their desks, joshing with their mates and baiting their teachers. But this is no Dead Poets Society or To Sir, with Love. These are bright kids, university material, cultured, thoughtful young men who are always ready to break into poetry or debate a historical ‘truth'.
The performances of the ‘schoolboys’ are all sound, subtle and delivered in a convincing Yorkshire accent, but two performances stand out, those of Geurens and Morgan David Jones. Jones, a recent graduate of WAAPA, gives a beautifully nuanced interpretation of Posner, the frailest member of the group, complete with Gracie Fields’s songs at the piano. Musical interludes, classic movies and risqué French classes are all part of Hector’s curriculum and are dramatic nuggets embedded in the seams of the plot.
Brian Lipson puts in a strong interpretation of the provincial headmaster, if a tad overblown, and Deirdre Rubenstein, who takes the only female role of Mrs Lintott, develops her character from the staid schoolmistress we see at the start to the worldly-wise mainstay of the school in the second act.
Ian McDonald’s music makes full use of popular songs, classical music and schoolyard samples to lift and change the mood and underscore the ironic and humorous elements of the play. The set design by Dale Ferguson allows for scene changes that work like fast forwarding a film, with boys whizzing exuberantly across stage with furniture and props, or moving out of the classroom into the world beyond the suspended white- and black-boards, all the time staying in character.
This is one of MTC’s most enjoyable productions, with a satisfying mix of laughter, profundity, satire and entertainment, a team of inspired actors and finely balanced direction.
Melbourne Theatre Company presents the Victorian Premiere of
The History Boys
By Alan Bennett
Venue: the Arts Centre Playhouse
Season: 12 April 2007 - 12 May 2007
Performance Schedule: Mon & Tue 6.30pm (9 & 10 Apr 8pm), Wed 1pm & 8pm, Thu & Fri 8pm, Sat 4pm & 8.30pm
Bookings: Ticketmaster 1300 136 166 or visit www.mtc.com.au