For those with a passion for education, Alan Bennett's The History Boys needs no introduction. First performed only a few years ago in 2004, this bitter-sweet ode to life and learning has already achieved the status of a modern classic and been adapted into a much-loved film.
As with so many works where the magic derives direct from the dialogue, the production rises and falls on the strength of the performances - the on-stage chemistry between the actors, their pacing and delivery and how well they are able to draw the audience in so that we may surrender to the script.
On all these counts, the Boroondara Theatre Company production succeeds. Thanks to some solid casting and competent direction by Bryce Ives, well known for his work in youth media, a high level of energy is sustained throughout and the rapid and complicated exchanges between characters feel natural and unaffected.
For those not familiar with the story (and really, what's your excuse?), The History Boys is set in a boys grammar school in Sheffield, England. A group of clearly gifted boys in their final year are preparing for entrance examinations as scholarship candidates for Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Their general studies teacher, Hector (Chris Gaffney), for whom the boys have considerable affection, considers exams to be the enemy of education and tries to instil in his students a love of knowledge, literature and learning for its own intrinsic value. The Headmaster (Peter Maver), on the other hand, is sceptical of Hector's methods and is more concerned with the prestige of the school, which has never before had students accepted into Oxford or Cambridge. "Fuck the Renaissance!" he says at one point, condensing an entire outlook into just a few words.
Meanwhile, a new teacher to the school, Irwin (Tristan Lutze), not much older than the boys themselves, tries to teach them techniques for passing their exams, subverting history in the cause of originality. Whereas the boys' regular history teacher Mrs Lintott (Beryle Frees) emphasises fact, Irwin's focus is on flavour. And while the focus of the story is the contrast between different approaches to teaching and learning and what happens when they are put in conflict, the flavour comes from a massive helping of sexual tension - a melting pot of adolescent sexuality, rejection, desire and homoeroticism that threatens to spill over at any moment in any scene - and a dash of paedophilia to really get things simmering. All in all, you couldn't ask for a better depiction of life at an English boys grammar school.
Although ostensibly an amateur production of The History Boys by the Boroondara Theatre Company, the cast deserve congratulations for their very convincing performances. Standouts for this reviewer were James Cook as Scripps, who as perhaps the most mature character among the boys, delivered a thoughtful, down-to-earth performance in a flawless Yorkshire accent. Also Elliot Roberts as Posner, who, staring directly at the audience while declaring himself to be Jewish, short, homosexual and living in Sheffield, achieves maximum pathos when he then adds - "I'm fucked." Luigi Lacente as Dakin, perhaps the closest thing the play has to a central character, hits all the right notes as the alpha-male student upon who most others' motivations are projected.
Special mention must also go to Fabio Motta as Akthar, a relatively minor character among the boys but whose portrayal seemed particularly natural and believable. And also to Beryle Frees as Mrs Lintott in an understated yet pivotal role, who seems to relish the opportunity to let her character off the leash a bit in one highly-charged scene.
Despite making mention of these particular performers, all the cast acquitted themselves admirably, no doubt with the help of dialect coach Ann Boulic, whose training seems to have allowed nearly all the cast to affect convincing English accents. The small performance space made for an intimate setting and a minimalist, though creative, set design meant scenes overlapped during some set changes and there was virtually no slackening in pace.
The whole production felt very tight - amateur but not amateurish. The only obvious departures from this level of professionalism were the few flash-forward moments projected on a video screen, in which the camerawork was a bit sloppy, the audio quality wasn't great and the performances seemed stilted and less natural than on-stage. There were also a few instances in which lighting changes didn't quite coincide with the actors' movements, but on the whole this didn't detract from the experience.
Although the script is a gift to any theatre company, The History Boys is a difficult play to pull off convincingly. There's singing and piano numbers, whole scenes in French, acting that has to appear impromptu and casual but which is actually carefully choreographed. Boroondara Theatre Company have obviously put a lot of effort into this production, and on the sell-out night this reviewer attended, it showed. It can be safely said, to borrow a line and use it without irony, that its sheer competence was staggering.
Boroondara Theatre Company presents
The History Boys
by Alan Bennett
Directed by Bryce Ives
Venue: Cromwell Road Theatre, South Yarra
Dates/Times: July 18th, 20th, 22nd, 23rd, 24th & 25th at 7.30pm | July 19th at 5pm | July 25th at 2pm
Tickets: $28 Adults, $25 Concession, $25 for groups above five
Bookings: 9809 1546