Production: The History Boys
Venue: West Yorkshire Playhouse
Runs: 3 February to 6 March
Poetry, history and journalism – three of my favourite things. Combine them together in a huge theatrical melting pot and I am a happy girl. Thus, I don’t think I am ever going to criticise any production of The History Boys: Alan Bennett’s striking and lucid dialogue and unforgettable, hilarious one-liners could carry any cast and set to success.
But West Yorkshire Playhouse’s production of my *self-confessedly favourite play* completely surpassed expectations. The cast were consistently homogenous, dynamic and bursting with an infectious energy throughout. They took Bennett’s hilarious ability to uproarious proportions, one particular highlight being the tragic Posner’s definitive line: “I’m Jewish. I’m homosexual. And I’m from Sheffield. I’m fucked.” The audience barely allowed the wonderfully graceful-yet-strangely-sexy James Byng to finish before exploding in a unanimous burst of laughter.
And that’s the perpetually perfect thing about Bennett. He manages to combine the really-not-so-funny-at-all with the oh-so-actually-brilliant to create works tinged with such nuance and irony, they are actually very easy to watch and laugh along with. According to last night’s production, even the Holocaust can be funny. The audience’s reaction to the classroom discussion regarding whether, if contextualised, the Holocaust can be “explained away” surprised me, and rather uncomfortably. When watching the film with the original, incomparable Broadway cast, one tends to miss the subtle undertones and certain twitches of irony punctuated in the more serious dialogue. But last night every embedded nuance was used by the cast superbly and realised by the audience gratefully.
The opening act had me feeling a bit ambivalent: the cast are so fast-paced, so flippant and so fluent in their lines that it felt as if I was being plummeted through the scenes, where the eight gifted Yorkshire lads begin to prepare for the Oxbridge examinations. Set in the 1980s, the production captured the essence of the era with musical interludes from The Cure, The Smiths and Dead or Alive.
But as the second-half began, and the more melancholic elements of Bennett’s script began to take prominence, I realised that the manic hilarity of the first act was actually cleverly paced in order to prepare the audience for the performances of the play’s climax.
That’s why The History Boys is always going to work so much more explosively on stage: despite my admittance that, indeed, the original cast are inevitably going to be *the* classic cast, West Yorkshire Playhouse has produced a show which makes you believe that these actors should have played these roles all their lives. The exquisite Penelope Beaumont’s performance as no-nonsense History teacher Mrs Lintott maintains clarity, reticence and endearment throughout, making you believe that, in fact, amongst the Audens and the Orwells and the gobbits and the journalism, she really is the only one who really knows who she is talking about. Her delivery of Lintott’s extraordinary line, “History is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men. What is history? History is women following behind… with a bucket,” was flawlessly understated and worked so much more powerfully when delivered on the rotating stage with the character sat down calmly amongst her pupils. The rotating stage worked to add a modest zing to an otherwise austere set, and helped give the production a more cinematic sheen.
I have only ever been to three plays in my life which received standing ovations. The first two were shameful populist musicals which I saw in Manchester with my-mum-and-her-middle-aged-female-friends before I had reached the age of ten. They don’t count. West Yorkshire Playhouse has found what I thought was impossible: an unprecedented cast and a flawless execution of such a delicate script. No euphemisms involved; the play was provocative, sardonic and engaging.