The History Boys Shows London’s Theatrical Future is in Good Hands
If anything, Calithumpian Theatre Co.’s inaugural production, The History Boys, shows that the future of local theatre is promising, courtesy of a well-paced, entertaining production of the Alan Bennett play.
Some outstanding youthful casting, complemented by a pair of key performances from more veteran actors and deft direction by John Gerry, ensured that the two-hour-and-40-minute-long preview performance of the play thoroughly entertained.
The History Boys is a play about the contrast between learning and education, set in a British grammar school. A supply teacher is brought in by an aggressive, results-seeking headmaster to complement the teachings of an eccentric English teacher. It pits the headmaster’s desire to earn glory for his school through his students’ acceptance into marquee institutions like Oxford and Cambridge against the desires of a teacher who wants to go beyond learning and imbue knowledge into his charges. It is a play that examines truth and whether truth is an absolute—regardless of whether it relates to sexuality, personal growth, or fact.
What strikes the viewer most about the production is that its younger actors, on the whole, outshine the older members of the cast. There are some notable exceptions on both ends of the spectrum, but by and large, the youthful “History Boys” carry the show. Alex Bogaert is notable for his performance of Dakin—one that grew stronger as the second act progressed. But it is Alex Bowman’s Posner and Stephen Ingram’s Scripps that drive the play, and these two actors shine not only in the moments in which they’re featured, but also in the moments where they’re part of the periphery.
That, presumably, is thanks in no small part to Gerry’s direction. Throughout the play, the action on stage seems natural. Instead of all the focus directed to the principals, the background characters maintain their roles and interact in a way that seems fluid and convivial. Instead of presenting a play, we are presented with a window into another world.
Amongst the more veteran actors, Matthew J. Stewart comfortably steps into the role of supply teacher Irwin, contracted to help the titular History Boys prepare for their entrance examinations. It’s an intellectual-yet-reserved role similar in tone to what we’ve seen before in previous performances such as Arcadia, Mr. Richardson was Jesse James, and even as Ambrose J. Small in the Lost Soul Stroll. And it’s one that Stewart settles into comfortably.
George Jolink’s Hector accomplishes the task of making a wholly deplorable man sympathetic and his performance inspires the production. By all rights, the audience should revile Hector, but his performance successfully leaves one with an appreciation for his message and an uncomfortable acquiescence to the methods.
Not everything is perfect. Ancillary roles, such as the politicians, the director, Fiona, and the makeup artist are cumbersome and tend to disrupt the progression. The elements in which they’re featured could have just have easily been completed with an actor talking off-stage and implying the responses—and it likely would have created a better flow.
As well, the use of video through the production, while interesting, seemed to be a bit out of character. Although the videos were beautifully composed and showed progression of the story, they seemed to be more akin to a music video interlude (complete with an ’80s soundtrack) rather than a natural part of the show. That said, my partner at the show completely disagreed with me and she felt the videos complemented the production well.
Set-wise, the production was stunning. Polaroid-like styling for the video screen, a separation of classroom and lounge furniture on the stage, wooden doors hanging from the ceiling, and an effective use of a chalkboard and messaging to transition between scenes all served to keep the play focused.
For a preview performance on Thursday, most of the production was extremely taught. There were a couple of fumbled lines, but nothing that derailed the show. In the end, The History Boys is not just a show that’s worth seeing in the present, but also one that’s showcasing the promise that London theatre has for the future.