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Last Friday, I went to the Curve Theatre in Leicester with my boyfriend and my eldest daughter to see The History Boys, written by Alan Bennett. I had previously seen the film, which stars Richard Griffiths and several young male actors who would go on to become big names - James Corden, Russell Tovey and Dominic Cooper.
The stage version of The History Boys has been touring since 2010 and finishes in Guildford this week, though hopefully it will tour again soon. It is a wonderful story and has so many great characters and a real depth of talent in the cast. This tour stars Philip Franks as Hector and his was the only name I recognised.
This production is set in Sheffield in the 1980s and scene changes are punctuated by bursts of 80s pop such as the Pet Shop Boys and A-Ha. The set is basic, but really well utilised. The classroom set mainly consists of desks and chairs with a piano in the background, as there are some musical numbers too, all set within the school day. The stage rotates slowly in certain scenes, meaning the audience can watch the action from differing angles, which is also effective but subtle.
The action takes place in the school where eight boys - Akthar, Crowther, Dakin, Lockwood, Posner, Rudge, Scripps and Timms - are working towards their exams, hoping to get into Oxford or Cambridge University. They are taught by the inspirational Hector, whose methods are rather unorthodox, but through him, the boys learn to love language and broaden their knowledge.
The headmaster however feels the boys need a new influence, so he hires a new teacher Irwin to bring in a more structured and disciplined approach to their education. The play follows the staff and the pupils through their exams and afterwards, culminating in a final scene set in the present day where the audience learn of the fates of each character.
There are some beautifully written characters in the play - as you'd expect from Alan Bennett. Hector (played here by Richard Franks) is excellent, just the sort of teacher who stood out in all our childhoods by being able to make lessons interesting (though the motorbike rides home are unusual!). While some of the eight boys have very little to do, four of them stood out for me - Dakin (George Banks) is the pretty one and he hits just the right level of arrogance to still manage to hold the audience's affection; Scripps (Harry Waller) is the religious one whose asides are very caustic; Timms (Christopher Keegan) is the class joker and has some of the funniest lines; Posner (Rob Delaney) is probably the deepest character amongst the boys being gay and Jewish and he has a stunning singing voice too.
The chemistry between the eight young actors works beautifully. Although they are all older than they are playing (Keegan was born in 1985, for example), you soon forget this as they act like boys in their late teens. There is a lot of scenery moving and running around which must have been choreographed, as it is beautifully timed and again adds to the realism.
There is only one woman in the cast and that is Penelope Beaumont who plays the school teacher Mrs Lintott. She has some great lines too, especially her incisive observations on sexism in the teaching profession. My daughter felt Thomas Wheatley's portrayal of the headmaster was a weak link and certainly his character wasn't as memorable as the other teachers, but my boyfriend and I felt he was very typical of the slightly aloof headmaster of a few decades ago.
The dialogue is really well done with some very clever use of language. This is a play you do need to concentrate on and Hector can be particularly verbose, just as many old school teachers tend to be! One of the cleverest scenes is performed entirely in French and even if you don't know the language, it is easy to follow and very funny.
The History Boys draws you quickly into the story and the characters, so you soon begin to feel you know them and care what happens to them. It is by turns very funny, moving, sad, poignant, endearing and sweet. It is suitable for teenagers upwards, as there is quite a bit of swearing and adult sexual themes. The play runs about one hour 45 minutes with an interval. My boyfriend and daughter found the first half was harder to get into, but enjoyed the second half more. I found both halves of the play were just as good, but as I had already seen the film version and knew the story quite well, this may have helped me get into it quicker.
Overall, The History Boys is an excellent play with a really talented cast. The production levels are very high, the music is great and it is well worth seeing. I will definitely try to see it again in the future, as I feel it can easily stand up to repeated viewings.
ALMOST FOUR MONTHS AGO I was lucky to watch Alan Bennetts The History Boys The Play during its one-week performance at the Opera House in Belfast. I knew it a month before the showing from the 44th Belfast Filmfest ads but I did not really bother to book or buy the ticket in advance thinking that this stage production will not get much attention from the theatre goers. I thought that way because I dont have any idea about it except that I read a little publicity from the Filmfest brochure which did not really talk about Bennetts credibility as an English playwriter.
Two hours before the show, I phoned the ticket office inquiring for that days performance and the availability of cheaper seats. Unfortunately, I was told that the whole-week schedule is sold out! I cant believe it, but since I was desperate to watch it, I took the risk of going to the venue praying that someone will return a ticket. My prayer was answered after 30 minutes of waiting and while watching the people queuing to get inside the main theatre. I got a seat (£20) in stalls area, 20 meters away from the stage.
**ABOUT THE PLAYWRITER Alan Bennett**
FOR THE BENEFITS of people who do not know about Bennetts brilliant work, I did a little research about him as my prelude to my review. Some of his popular stage plays include Habeas Corpus, Forty Years On, Getting On, The Wind in the Willows, The Madness of George III, including several monologues from the Talking Heads collection: A Chip in the Sugar, A Lady of Letters and A Woman of No Importance (as an actor and director) which received the Laurence Olivier Award for Outstanding Entertainment and Most Outstanding Performance in a Musical or Entertainment. A Day Out, A Visit from Miss Prothero, The Old Crowd, And Englishman Abroad, and The Insurance Man are some of its work in television. In film productions he was involved in A Private Function, Prick Up Your Ears, and The Madness of King George. In 2005, Mr. Bennett published his autobiography entitled Untold Stories.
It was a coincidence while writing this review over the weekend, I also able to watch The Madness of King George shown in Channel 4. This film garnered Oscars (1994) nomination in 4 categories (Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress and Adapted Screenplay and the winner for Art Direction (Samuel Goldwyn). Being adapted from the play, The Madness of George III, the film proved Alan Bennetts finest writing prowess, showcasing his sense of humour and his love to poetry.
The film with the same title (adapted from the play) was shown late in 2006 and one of the hopefuls for this year (2007) OSCARS award for the best actor and actress nominations. Unfortunately, I was not able to watch this, but critics gave a thumbs-up for the plays adaptation.
**ABOUT THE PLAY**
THIS IS ABOUT THE EIGHT young, intelligent, funny and unruly boys in their final year at the states grammar school in Northern England, aspiring to be students at Oxford and Cambridge (OxCam) universities. These boys have a senior English teacher, Hector who taught General Studies quite differently away from the traditional way of teaching. Being close to the boys, he always invites everyone to ride with his motorcycle for a lift in going home which the boys take it for fun.
Aware of Hectors teaching method, the Headmaster decided to hire a new teacher, Mr. Irwin to train these boys on how to pass university entrance exams. Consequently, Irwin got some teaching loads from Hector and he inspired these boys to improve their answers and essays particularly on history. As the days passed Hector becomes unhappy but on the other hand, Irwin realised (through the boys confessions during the class) that Hector teaching is valuable to help the boys in the preparation for the entrance tests.
Is it a happy or sad ending? Well, what I can only say is that the boys were accepted in Oxford and Cambridge. How about their teacher, Hector and Mr. Irwin? Unfortunately, I can not reveal what happened to them, so in that case, why not you better book a ticket now for its West End (Wyndhams Theatre) shows.
By the way, the play has 2 acts having a running time of almost 2 hours and 45 minutes with a15-minute break between the acts. Act 1 mainly introducing the main cast of the play, giving the audience the glimpse of the different personalities of the characters portrayed in the story, particularly the 8 boys, Hector and the rest of the academic staff. With the second act, it focused on Irwins teaching techniques and his conduct towards the boys; the preparation of the boys for the entrance exams; and consequently what happened to Hector, Mr. Irwin and the boys after passing the tests.
SURPRISINGLY, the stage was transformed into real classroom, office or hallway in few seconds as every scene unfolds. The physical set-up on stage provided the play the credibility for theatre goers to experience the real-to-life setting on how the teachers and boys behave in a British Grammar School during those days. The lay-out of the props (wall partitions, tables, chairs, posters on the walls, piano) added consistency to the time dimension of the play.
The use of big white screen and flat screens for the overhead projection were effective. The big screen at the centre of the stage and the two small LCD/flat screens were installed in both corners of the stalls area provided viewers both in ground and upper floors of the Opera House a clear visual presentation (in black and white) of past events. Even though projector is not popular in the 80s, but this advanced tech teaching aid was valuable - instead of dramatising the scenes for additional set-up but have just quick flashbacks of the past occasions. And most importantly, this video projection is effective enough not let people watching the show get bored or not making their eyes busy. This set-up of presentation somehow brings a different perspective on how film and theatre can work together.
There was no dancing or a grand singing performance, except that there was only one piece musical instrument, the piano set at the farthest corner of the stage which is used once in a while. The music scoring, sound and lighting were just perfectly right, except the sound during the initial part of Act 1 where the conversation among stage actors was not clear/audible.
THERES ARE SO MUCH valuable things to learn from the characters of the play. Every character brought significant contribution that made this production interesting to watch. The portrayals were realistic it seems that I was not watching the play, but watching real students and teachers.
First and foremost the teachers: Hector, Irwin and Mrs. Lintott representing three different techniques of teaching. Hector - someone who represents a little fraction of the teaching force nowadays. His method of teaching is quite unique with no standard footing, away from analytical method. His interests in poetry is also influenced his teaching, trying to convince his students to memorise and understand them by heart. Well his behaviour (invitation for the motorbike ride) towards the boys is another story which will be discussed later in my review.
Irwin on the other hand, is the modern type and opposite of Hector technique. He applies the analytical approach, most interested in presentation of challenging facts and arguments. And Mrs Lintott (as the only female actor in the play) represents the bookish type of educator with personal detachment from her work which is not really inspiring for students.
The boys represent the diverse interesting personalities, providing the audience a glimpse on how every young individual from different family backgrounds is motivated to learn from their teachers, and interact/socialise with their peers. I will not introduce them all here but instead only those powerful performances of Posner, Dakin and Scripps. Posner is a Jewish gay student and in love with one of the boys, Dakin. He also loves to sing, act and very easy for him to mingle with his classmates and teachers. The portrayal of Posner of being gay but witty is the entertainment side of the play, making the audience laugh and even giggle during his poetry recitation and outstanding singing rendition. Dakin is the good-looking young man who is love interest of Posner. His ultimate target is the secretary of the Headmaster, and at the end he tried to seduce Irwin, knowing that the new teacher is also fantasising him, aside from Posner. And Scripps portrayal is comical, where he always quiet - listening intensely and busy taking notes during classes. Sometimes he takes the attention of the teachers or interrupts the lecture if he misses something from the discussion.
**MY CONCLUDING VIEWS**
THE PLAY PROVIDED me something to ponder as being a teacher and a student at the same time. It tackled relevant issues that teachers and students need to understand and be aware of even this play set in the early 1980s, almost two decades ago.
TEACHING METHODS/TECHNIQUES are influential in the learning curve of every young student. Approaches used in teaching plays an important role in the personal development of a student. We all know that when a child started to go to school, most of his/her time is with the teachers than with his/her parents. So, we can not ignored the influence created by the teachers to the children which some of them become their role models in their adulthood.
LEARNING (from academic community) is a continuous process and a rewarding experience. It is not solely dependent from the lecturer/teacher and from the educational system or the university itself, but it is how the student embraces learning with full of enthusiasm and be able to apply the things that have learned to the real world.
THE PLAY ALSO reminded me of our hopes and failures, not only being a teacher, a student but an individual person. Despite our weaknesses, every one of us has something to prove in our life that is worth pursuing for our own self fulfilment and happiness. Like Hector, Mr. Irwin and Posner had tried to express themselves to be accepted by their peers and do something that worth pursuing. I dont know exactly what happened during those rides with Hector which somehow still a puzzle to me. How about the motivation of Posner for his openness affection to Dakin, and even the flirting of Dakin with Irwin? These are issues that are relevant today tackling homosexuality and paedophilia.
LASTLY, the play reminded me of my favourite films, Dead Poets Society and Mona Lisa Smiles, to some extent tackled important issues in teaching and learning, and the inter-relationships among the key actors: teachers and students.
**SIGNIFICANT PRODUCTION NOTES & ACHIEVEMENT**
THE TEACHERS: Hector Stephen Moore, Irwin Orlando Wells, Mrs. Lintott Isla Blair, Headmaster William Chubb
THE BOYS:Posner Steven Webb, Dakin Ben Barnes, Scripps Thomas Morrison, Akthar Marc Elliott, Crowther Akemnji Ndifornyen, Lockwood David Poynor, Rudge Philip Correia, and Timms Owain Arthur
Director: Nicholas Hytner
Recreated by: Simon Cox
Designer: Bob Crowley
Lighting Designer: Mark Henderson
Music: Richard Sisson
Sound Designer: Colin Pink
Laurence Olivier Award: Best Director - Nicholas Hytner
Laurence Olivier Award: Best New Play
Laurence Olivier Award/Critics Circle Award: Best Actor Richard Griffiths
New York Drama Critics Circle Award/Evening Standard Award/Drama Desk Award/Drama League Award/London Critics Circle Award: Best Play
And 6 Tony Awards (2006), namely: Best Play, Best Lead Actor (Richard Griffiths), Best Featured Actress (Frances de la Tour), Best Lighting Design (Mark Henderson), Best Scenic Design (Bob Crowley) and Best Direction (Nicholas Hytner).
FINALLY, the premiere of the play and the second production were held at the Nationals Lyttelton Theatre in May 2004 and September 2005, respectively. The 2006 UK tour production started at the middle of 2006 at Birmingham Rep.