The History Boys follows a group of bright state school pupils in the 1980s as they navigate the usual hazards of sex, friendship and self-discovery, all whilst working towards getting into Oxford and Cambridge.’
The first striking thing about EUTC’s production of Axlan Bennett’s classic is the casting. The titular ‘boys’ are portrayed by both male and female actors, a case of gender-blind casting which works brilliantly in spectacle.
While Ishbel McLachlan as Timms and Lizzie Lewis as Scripps possess perhaps the best comic timing of any of the players, the decision to inject a female cast into the play could be argued to undermine the role of Mrs Lintott (Katrina Johnstone) who would otherwise be the sole female presence on stage. Her impassioned speeches on the role of women in history are beautifully delivered but are arguably weakened by the sense that she is not as isolated as she makes out.
Does this blemish obscure the production’s strong points? Absolutely not. The History Boys is otherwise a brilliant adaptation of the classic play, filled with electric performances and superb chemistry between the actors. The set is a jumble of classroom and office paraphernalia, with desks, books and a blackboard inscribed with musical notes. James Strahan and Michael Black play Hector and Irwin respectively, two very different teachers divided by both a generation gap and opposing ideas about the purpose of education.
Strahan has great stage presence, affable and almost magisterial in the influence he holds over his pupils. Black gives a layered showing and is at once earnest and iconoclastic yet cocksure and vulnerable. As the handsome, self-assured student Dakin, Patrick Haworth imbues the play with much of its sexuality, sharing convincing homoerotic tension with Black’s Irwin.
This gay desire, both suppressed and expressed, fills the air. Hector’s lechery only makes him a more pathetic, tragicomic figure. Charlie Woolley plays the bookish Posner, who lusts fruitlessly after Dakin with an awkwardness that is endearing and enervating in all the right places. Even Irwin is not immune to homosexual impulse, and it is gripping to watch the character’s superficiality and insecurity emerge as the night progresses.
More than anything, though, this is a play about learning, knowledge, truth and the power they bring to us. The student theatre setting is used cleverly, with metatheatrical nods to our own university, and the line “Go to Edinburgh – you’ll be happier” receives one of the biggest laughs of the evening, for better or worse. Strahan’s Hector, who views “education as the enemy of education,” closes the play with a moving explanation of his own academic philosophy, urging his beloved pupils to “pass it on.” I do not doubt that those in the audience of Bedlam theatre will do just that.
Image: Mhairi Fenton