at Milton Keynes Theatre, Tuesday 18th May 2010
A solitary, backlit wheelchair greets the audience before the play begins, reminding those of us who already know the play (which, I assume, is a great many) what is to come. The opening of the second act has a bleak hopelessness to it and the final scenes are incredibly still. What Christopher Luscombe’s revival of Alan Bennett’s 2004 play The History Boys emphasises is the sheer tragedy of the final few scenes, something which was not as apparent in the original.
Perhaps Bennett’s wittiest play to date, the dexterity of the language is emphasised, as is a real sense of creativity. Focus is drawn to the teaching methods of Hector, which seem, although unorthodox, extremely fun. When the boys perform their rehearsed scenes, the lack of creative teaching in the modern age is realised. Children of all ages don’t want to sit and talk. They want to create. They want to play.
In this production, Luscombe brings out the beginning of the end for the creative education system, as bureaucracy begins to take over. Talk of “league tables” and “exams” show how far we’ve come away from the real meaning behind education. The usefulness of both these things are questioned and we realise that the only thing that matters when teaching young people is that they get the thirst to, in the words of Hector, “pass it on”.
Above all, however, in this production, a real sense of nostalgia is conveyed. Bennett clearly revels in his memories of the past and of youth, and Mic Pool highlights these through the use of loud 80s pop music during energetic scene changes. When discussing their past, the teachers’ eyes always become glazed over, remembering when they had energy and vitality.
Janet Bird’s design of sketched classrooms and offices serves to support the creative aspect of the production and is also useful in focussing attention on the characters and words. The world around them is not complete and is only a drawing, but their relationships are incredibly real. Tim Mitchell’s lighting comes into its own in the second act, giving a green tinge to Irwin’s documentary and silhouetting the boys as they recite their monologues.
The cast, especially the boys, are incredibly strong. Both James Byng as Posner and Rob Delaney as our semi-narrator Scripps capture the awkwardness of growing up brilliantly, and Ben Lambert’s Irwin shows how difficult it can be being outshone by bright young men. Although strong, however, it seems that Luscombe has cast the actors according to Hytner’s original. Too many of the characters look too much like their counterparts in the 2004 production and instead of seeing them for who they are, we are annoyingly reminded of the older cast. No risks have been taken and in fact the interpretation and even mannerisms for each boy seem uncannily similar.
Nevertheless, this production is joyful and wickedly funny. It captures the heart of the original whilst also adding a slight twist of its own. The script also teaches us some valuable lessons about how to write a top class essay. What more could you want?