Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The History Boys"

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note: entire contents copyright 2008 by Robin McGuire

"The History Boys"

Reviewed by Robin McGuire

Tony Award winning playwright, Alan Bennett’s The History Boys is a thought provoking satirical look at an English boy’s grammar school set in 1984 working class Sheffield. Filled with wonderful performances and witty, crisp dialogue it is the most satisfying two plus hours you will ever spend at the theatre. The SpeakEasy Stage Company production will be showing at the Sanford Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA until June 7.

The play centers on two diametrically opposed pedagogues; Hector a worn out, eccentric free-thinking professor and Tom Irwin, an insecure new teacher eager to prove himself. Both begin a tug of war for the interests and affections of the students.

The school’s headmaster is bound and determined the boys will do well on their exams and be eligible to enter one of the Oxbridge colleges. To this end he entreats young Irwin to tutor the boys in history. Irwin takes the challenge on by instructing the boys to question all things historical and approach history from a detached view. He wants to boys to think outside the box and offer essays with ideas that might shock or sound different from their counterparts and thereby set them apart from the other applicants. This manner of teaching is completely contrary to Hector’s General Studies lectures on poetry and art. In Hector class the students act out their lessons with scenes from Brief Encounter and Now, Voyager. Or they may burst into songs by Gracie Fields and recite poets W.H. Auden or T.S. Eliot.

Through a series of events Irwin and Hector are asked to teach the students together. The intense debate over the educational process and its benefits is inevitable. What ensues is both poignant and tragic.

Hector is masterfully played with style and sensitivity by Bob Colonna. Chris Thorn gives a mixture of cagey upstart attitude with the right amount of vulnerability as Tom Irwin. The charming and brilliant ensemble cast of eight lads is performed by young local talent. Each of them provides strong and deliberate performances. Karl Baker Olson as Posner the timid homosexual who is in love with handsome teacher’s pet Dakin played by Dan Welton are standouts for their convincingly tender portrayals. Paula Plum as Dorothy Lintoff the boy’s resolute instructor, once again demonstrates why she is an accomplished actor. Fresh from an equally terrific appearance in Three Tall Women her performance is amusing and sardonic. Timothy Crowe is entertaining as the harsh, dense headmaster Felix Armstrong.

Norton Award winner Scott Edmiston’s outstanding direction imparts an open landscape for Bennett’s work. Edmiston even has enough forethought to give the audience a detailed History Boys vocabulary available for reference. Trust me, you’ll need it.

Janie Howland’s perfectly executed scholastic set design makes us feel right in the action yet doesn’t overpower the actors. A superb musical score by Dewey Dellay brings a light and gay (no pun intended) flare that is fresh and lively.

David Connolly’s skillfully choreographed sequences are foot-tapping and just plain fun to watch.

The underlying themes of economic class struggles, English school boy homosexuality and discussions on the value of higher learning are quite provocative. Bennett wants us to consider his characters' motives and actions as well as be entertained. As light and airy as the music and dance arrangements are there is much more to The History Boys. It may leave you with more questions than answers, but isn’t that what school is all about anyway.

"The History Boys" (2 May - 7 June)
@ Boston Center for The Arts, 539 Tremont Street, BOSTON

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide