A lesson in life studies

history boys cast

Hector (Richard Hope) is charged with taking the class photo by the head (Christopher Ettridge), flanked by Mrs Lintott (Susan Twist) and Mr Irwin (Mark Field) in the middle row, neatly keeping the school's maverick teacher out of the picture

The History Boys

The New Alexandra Theatre

****

WE all have teachers we remember fondly from those lost days of youth. Mine was Mr Routh, like Hector in Alan Bennett’s celebrated play, a teacher of English Lit and General Studies, the latter a subject he taught with infectious and chaotic enthusiasm and a scant regard for the syllabus – if ever there was one.

We all passed, using his advice to waffle with style, so he must have been doing something right. Rather like Hector, Routh delighted in knowledge for its own sake, not something to cram into pupils by rote for exams and qualifications.

Richard Hope gives us a wonderfully eccentric portrayal of Hector, a teacher approaching retirement at a fictional Sheffield grammar school, who saw his teaching as an antidote to education as seen by his General Studies inclusion of the likes of Gracie Fields, George Formby, Brief Encounter and a whole host of films and poets.

The play is set in the 1980s, and above Hector is the headmaster, a rather pompous man, a manager rather than a teacher, whose ideas are a station or two up the line from reality.

Played with a sort of flamboyant arrogance by Christopher Ettridge, he wants to see his school gaining more academic prestige in the world. A group of history students being prepared for the Oxbridge entrance exams – and the school is yet to have a history student at Oxbridge - are the first step along the road.

Their history learning has been well provided by Mrs Lintoff, played with a refined air, punctuated by delightful sparks of more robust Anglo-Saxon, by Susan Twist. She is old school and despairs at the new style of speculation and supposition in modern history presentations.

Not withstanding though,she has given the boys their history foundation, but the head is less sure about Hector’s more cavalier attitude to both Oxbridge and learning in the preparation for the exams; so he employs a specialist coach, Mr Irwin, a product of Corpus Christie, Cambridge, whose role is simple, prepare the history boys for the entrance exam any way he can - and get them through.

Mark Field is a determined, if a little insecure, Irwin, whose modern, look for a different angle, smoke and mirrors methods are at odds with both Mrs Lintott’s fact based approach and Hectors more casual, laid back approach to examinations in general and Oxbridge in particular.

The boys find themselves between the exam driven Irwin and knowledge seeking Hector and we see some fine performances from the youngsters especially Steven Roberts as the unfortunate Posner, who despairs at being small, Jewish, gay - and from Sheffield. Posner is the class song and dance man, and although the sound could perhaps benefit from a tweak upwards, he does the job well with Alex Hope, as Scripps, playing a fine piano accompaniment. The singing is a pastime encouraged by Hector who runs Hectora sweep on his ability to recognise scenes from old films acted out by the boys.

There was the rather surly Rudge, played by David Young, whose main academic attribute seemed to be an ability to play rugby at a high level, then Akthar, the Moslem along with  Crowther (Matthew Durkhan), Lockwood (Patrick McNamee) and Timms (Joshua Mayes-Cooper) and then there was Dakin.

Dakin, played by Kedar Williams-Stirling, is romantically, or perhaps more accurately, lustfully engaged in the pursuit and eventual conquest of the headmaster’s secretary Fiona (Melody Brown).

Hector, played by Richard Hope, in his element teaching teenage boys about nothing in particular

He is also the target of affection of Posner and, less predictably, Mr Irwin, who we discover is not all he seems in more ways than one. Discovering Dakin appears to have a foot in both sexual camps only added to the knowledge of a more carnal nature we had already gleaned, starting with Hector’s habit or taking home a different boy on his motorcycle each evening.

It would be a naïve audience in the extreme who did not find suspicions aroused and it is not long before we realise he rides with one hand on the handlebar with the other holding on to his pillion passenger in a somewhat intimate way.

When his riding style is spotted, by chance, by the headmaster’s wife matters, and Hector’s career, come to a head . . . with the head.

Yet, despite Hector’s lack of negotiating chips, Bennett gives us not one but two two unexpected twists to take us to the end  . . . and a link back to the beginning of each act, in a play, which rather like school, ends with neither completion or conclusion.

There are moments in the play, in a clever classroom set from Libby Watson, that people will recognise from their own schooldays, and perhaps that is where the success and popularity of the play lies, school is a common and universal experience. – the audience can indulge themselves in revisiting their youth.

It was most unlikely there was a groping teacher on a motor bike, a sexually receptive school secretary, or a young teacher with a briefcase full of secrets in the school attended by anyone among the first night audience at a particularly chilly Alex, but just the sight of desks, pupils and teachers is enough to start a journey into nostalgia.

Director Kate Saxon keeps things moving along as we see relationships and ideas unfold and perhaps question the real purpose of education Regarded as Bennett’s masterpiece, it was voted the nation’s favourite play in an English Touring Theatre poll and whether you agree or not, it is certainly one to tick off any theatrical bucket list.

Sell a Door theatre company's production is entertaining, funny, witty and, at times, rather sad and it will reawaken host of school memories. To 28-02-15

Roger Clarke

23-02-15

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