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Review of The History Boys by Alan Bennett at The Playhouse Theatre, Northampton

Remarkable as it may seem when I settled, although a little sweatily into my seat at The Playhouse Theatre to watch The History Boys, I was about to have only my second encounter with the works of Alan Bennett. My only previous meeting with his material had been the 1994 film The Madness of King George.

Set in a Sheffield grammar school in the 1980's, The History Boys brings to life the story of the pursuit to Oxford of eight students and the school's collection of wacky and genital cupping teachers. It's a bewildering piece to stage with its pre-interval 18 scenes and another bag of 15 afterwards, however, this snappy production under the direction of Gary Amos moves without pause for breath, and perhaps despite my never thinking I would ever write this, maybe at times too swift scene changes. For a person whose musical tastes lie very much in the eighties soundtrack this play utilises, bridging every single scene with classics from the decade falls right into my happy world. It works superbly, however, because of the need perhaps to do it every time between the 33 scenes, some whip in and out so briskly, that they either feel unnecessary or poorly utilised.

What is so perfect though, and almost excruciating because of it, is the cast assembled here. Distubingly ideal in each role are the eight students, four teachers and even the casually observing secretary with the loose lips. Each of the actors embody their roles to such a uncanny realism that you feel for the two hours of the play you are a fly on the wall of a real classroom.

While all the students bring their own special to proceedings, the obvious larger characters manage to rule the roost. No better on display is Daniel Bolton's developing homosexual Posner, desperate to get the attentions of the seemingly willing to swing both ways Dakin (Samuel Birch), Bolton is quite, quite brilliant and perfect in everything that the role requires. He also has the bulk of the singing moments of the play, and these are delivered perfectly in character as well. As Dakin, Birch has the distinct swagger and comfidence for the role, willing to handle any opportunity to come his way, be they female or male. His confrontation and proposition scene with Irwin (Toby Pugh), is perhaps one of the strongest scenes in the play, and justifiably went down a storm with the audience.

I greatly enjoyed seeing Patrick Morgan once again having followed his route through the University of Northampton BA Acting course, and as Timms, he brings a wonderfully playful touch to the role as the clown of the piece. Likewise, another chance to see the talented Luke Nunn on stage again is a wonderful pleasure, here he confidently controls proceedings as the sensible and part narrator of the piece, Scripps. Daniel Peace also nicely plays the least clever of the boys, Rudge, with an undemonstrative feel, more than happy to sit back and observe the proceedings.

Lockwood (Jake Abbott), Akthar (Nitish Shah) and Crowther (William Cheyne) form more of a chorus of class background with their characters in Bennett's piece, but that doesn't stop any of them from bringing life to their characters, despite the limited material they have to work with.

The four teachers likewise don't pale against the impact of the students, Ian Spiby is in blistering form as the troubled Hector, bringing spirit into the classroom amid poorly covered sexual predatory behavior. Despite everything, you can't help but feel sorry for him as we head to the emotional end of act one. Toby Pugh also creates some nice, deftly controlled depth as the stark future of Hector clone looms in his world, he forms an uneasy balance between what it right and wrong when emotions break adding some emotional depth to the play.

April Pardoe brings quality as the apparent stable teacher (in this collection of instability) who appears all proper and professional and full of infinite wisdom, yet call all of a sudden explode with the top honours in the verbal exchanges leaving the audience both shocked, amused and confused in equal measure. Also appearing to be having a great old time as the sweary and quite brilliant Headmaster is Barry Dougall. His reactions to everything that is happening around him bring great joy to the audience and it is as always a brilliant performance from him.

The play evolves upon a neatly created stage from Mark Mortimer and nicely decorated, including a collection of mesmorising collage of images stacked noticeboards. Deftly efficient fold away chairs are used for ease of scene changes and the cast handle these mostly with aplomb, only very occasionally restricting movement, quite an achievement with as many as this show requires on the Playhouse stage.

Perhaps the most interesting part of The History Boys itself is how despite it only gracing the stage for the first time in 2004 is how time has not been kind to it. Sure it's setting of eighties England allows it to be completely and creepily amoral with its representation of sexual abuse at the hands of Hector, this can now sit very unnessily with an audience from events in more recent times. Likewise, Mrs Lintott's tirade regarding the lack of female history presenters (expertly delivered by April Pardoe), while in keeping with the period setting, now sits nul and void fortunately. However, this production rightfully sticks with the orignal world and woe betides anyone ever trying to set this anywhere other than the then innocent eighties as this one simply won't work.

So, The History Boys sits happily at the top of the best show I have seen in the four years watching at The Playhouse Theatre, however it leaves me with a curious question, is it possible for an amateur show to be just too good? The answer, of course, is an absolute no, however in my informed behind the scenes seat at The Playhouse now, I know that the drive for this to be so perfect, might at times have been a little too much. Asking the cast to rehearse, as they were for 20 hours in two days on the final weekend before show week, might just possibly be that too far. These people are already putting much of their life on hold as it is to do what they want to do as a "hobby", so getting that balance needs to be worked with care. Having spoken to others from a different group about this, they believed that it wasn't too much, but who truly knows whether when you ask someone to come in whether they would ever dare to politely decline. This is the amateur game, not the professional circuit and no matter how much the controlling factor of the director wants to get everything perfect, care and balance should be taken with your volunteering workforce.

So, yes this is quite a show to behold, created with some unerring and clinical love by its director and performed with a gusto rarely seen at the amateur level. It's not the very best amateur performed show I have seen, however, I would hazard a guess that it is actually the best where not one of the crew received a monetary reward. A labour of love in many many ways perhaps, but the result just might be worth it, perhaps.

Performance reviewed: Thursday 6th July 2017 at the Playhouse Theatre, Northampton.

The History Boys runs at the Playhouse Theatre, Northampton until Saturday 8th July 2017.

For full details of the Playhouse Theatre visit their website at http://www.theplayhousetheatre.net/
and can be found on Twitter @PlayhouseNTH or on Facebook at 
https://www.facebook.com/groups/1104164619627708/

Photos: Vicki Holland

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