The History Boys

Witnessing a play’s organic process, may seem like the average theatregoer’s dream; but to witness this process is an unlucky opportunity, one which I had the misfortune to undertake

Production: The History Boys
Venue: Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York
Rating: ***

Witnessing a play’s organic process, from amateur rehearsals to a final fully-synthesised stage performance, may seem like the average theatregoer’s dream; but to witness this process is an unlucky opportunity, one which I had the misfortune to undertake. Whilst I perched on my slightly too-squishy seat in a half-empty theatre hall on Thursday evening, I could not resist thinking the very thing that I feared I would whilst sat in the rehearsals two months ago: the production had somehow missed the point. And The History Boys is certainly a fatal play to miss the point with: loaded with historical and literary inter-textuality, and dense with sombre philosophical musings, the play requires a cast as sharp and fervid as the characters. What I seemed to witness instead was the blunderings of the original cast’s dopplegangers.

When sat in rehearsals, however, I remained optimistic about the play’s progression. But one knows there is always something unquestionably deficient about a play if it makes you cringe throughout the sexual dialogue rather than gasp at the tension.

What I found most perplexing was the contrast between the traditional film set created by BBC films, which pleasingly placed a picture of George Orwell behind Hector’s ruminating head (a perfectly logical move, considering his admiration for the author is significantly integrated into the dialogue) and the set used by the Joseph Rowntree Theatre. There wasn’t a trace of Orwell to be seen, and instead the audience were left to marvel on Nazi propaganda (which, as any discerning historian would know, shouldn’t be displayed auspiciously in classrooms). And I have very reasonably acknowledged that, yes, this was an amateur production – hence why I chose to overlook the squishy seat and the visibility of cast members changing behind the set whilst a scene was still commencing – and that, yes, you don’t have to be a historian to produce a play about… history. But there is nothing wrong with a bit of research.

An area of excellence that The History Boys didn’t fall short on in terms of research and talent was the comedy. Perhaps the most memorable scene of the play, in which the characters improvise a scene in a French brothel (part of Hector’s quirky teaching incentive), was acted with impeccability. When the cast can rouse roars of laughter of that scale, one tends to easily overlook pedantic theatre design inconsistencies.

And perhaps I use the word ‘original’ to describe the celebrated cast from the film – Dominic Cooper, Richard Griffiths, James Corden etc. – too hastily. The brilliance of the actors from the first stage production who then went to produce the BBC film is sure to overshadow any proceeding productions – to the extent that for many fans it may seem that Richard Griffiths, and Griffiths alone, can play Hector. However, I stand by the idea that witnessing the developments of a play leading up to its production damages the reception of the final product. I feel that I almost anticipated the weaknesses I sensed in rehearsals, which are unfortunately feelings I would have otherwise had no recollection of.

The History Boys showed at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, from Thursday 28th April to Saturday 2nd May.


  1. 10 May ’09 at 5:47 pm

    Sophie Jagger

    “The brilliance of the actors from the BBC film who then went on to the stage…”
    I think you’ve got it backwards. Play first, film second.

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  2. Thanks for pointing that out.
    I’ll get it changed.

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