‘One of the historian’s jobs,’ Mr Irwin observes to his class of Oxbridge candidates, ‘is to anticipate what our perspective of that period [the immediate past, ‘dead ground’] will be.’ It is, in other words, to learn the ways of presentation. Against this ‘modern’ approach stands the facts-based pedagogy of Mrs (‘Dorothy’) Lintott, played stridently by Hannah Ayesha Ritchie: she, by contrast, argues that ‘plainly stated and properly organised facts need no presentation.’ This is the debate at the heart of The History Boys: between the fact –of Hector’s predilections, Posner’s infatuation, the desires and past hiding behind Mr Irwin’s careful surface— and its presentation: Hector’s ‘studied eccentricity’; the lessons in which the boys are taught by the varnished Irwin to varnish the past itself; the concealed inner workings of the small group in its close environment.
This is, in other words, a play that will stand or fall on the ability of its actors to portray nuanced individuals. Alan Bennett is a highly accomplished writer of dialogue, and his wordplay is frequently funny in its own right, but he is not Tom Stoppard, and much of the strength of his script comes from character-driven interplay. The History Boys is, accordingly, not an easy choice of play, and the director, Harrison Roberts, is to be commended. There were several members of the cast whose performances stood out, and deserve mention: Ed Prendergast as a nuanced Posner, whose effete characterisation veered towards mincing without becoming a stereotype, and trod a well-balanced line between comical and poignant; an appropriately simian, but never simplistic, portrayal of Rudge by Bailey Fear; a convincingly sex-driven Dakin as played by Louis Catliff.
It was to be expected that, with so natural a comic actor as Harrison Roberts –for my money, the best of Blind Mirth— in the director’s chair, The History Boys would offer a great deal of humour. It did. Ed Polsue, another Blind Mirth member here taking up the pivotal role of Hector, was in particularly fine fettle during the many moments that Bennett offers up ripe for comedy; Sebastian Allum, as Mr Irwin, provided a consistently clipped and bemused presence in foil; Tom Caruth, as Timms, also made very good use of his lines, showing a natural comic timing and inflexion that coalesced as the play progressed to give a very believable schoolboy.
Where comedy was required, therefore, this production had it in spades. Where pathos was required, however, it lacked. A force of blithe cheerfulness, a spirit which had almost the whole cast partaking in some great joke, pervaded for much of the play. Bennett’s skill lies in his ability to craft dialogue that, though not necessarily realistic –in fact, seldom realistic; it is conversation distilled— reveals a great deal of the interlocutors to yield a mingled stream of what might even be called tragi-comedy: he places his characters in a hinterland in which they show more than they might mean, but less than they might want, for an effect both humorous and saddening. When The History Boys made its debut in 2004, a review acclaimed Bennett as ‘The Bard of British Loneliness’. He captures people who are uncertain of their identities, and who are, in a way peculiarly British, trapped in a self-repression that manifests in humour— until the shell of humour implodes.
In this production, the shell never quite imploded. That is not to say that it was anything other than a very enjoyable evening: but nonetheless, there were times when even the slick dialogue felt a trifle complacent, when the momentum sagged slightly, just as there were times when pauses pregnant with character, rather than a smooth continuation into the next joke, may have been of greater use. That is both the beauty of Bennett, and the bane of those attempting to perform him: so many of his lines could be either a joke, or a bitter pronouncement— or both. There were times, in this show, when bitterness was precluded to instead allow the communal joke unfettered passage. As a result even the final scene, a sequence of poignant sorrow punctuated by dark humour, became a continuation of the ongoing spirit of jollity.
The ongoing spirit of joke was a lot of fun, and the cast was more than up for the challenge of maintaining it. But somewhere along the road –I would suggest the joint lesson in which the Holocaust is discussed, or perhaps Hector’s brief breakdown— the play missed a change of gear, a moment in which the comedy could, but didn’t quite, have blended more closely with the pathetic to transcend farce –presentation— and deliver statement: fact.