Review: The History Boys

After recently taking in the excellent Arts Club’s other current offering, Doubt at the Stanley, and the equally entertaining  Frost/Nixon at the Vancouver Playhouse we were so prepared for a theatrical hat-trick with The History Boys we were almost giddy with anticipation for this opening shot at the Arts Club Granville Island Theatre.

Unfortunately, not only did the play go into overtime – with intermission it runs a full three hours – for us it also failed to score any real points except with the stage, lighting and sound design.  But this technical hat-trick did little to save the show.

Okay, enough with the hockey metaphors…

Set in the north of England in the 1980s, The History Boys chronicles eight classmates who are vying for entry into two of the United Kingdom’s most prestigious universities and the teachers tasked with preparing them for the examinations necessary to achieve spots at either Oxford or Cambridge.

Adding to the pressure of preparing for these exams is the imposition of a supply (substitute) teacher Irwin (Kirk Smith) by the school’s Headmaster (Duncan Fraser) to help the boys achieve their goal of entry to one of these two schools.

Much younger than the other teachers at the school, Irwin’s teaching style of “history journalism” contrasts greatly against the quirky and irreverent Hector (Bernard Cuffling) and the more traditional “history as memorization” teacher, Dorothy Lintott (Jane Noble).  But while the three teaching styles may differ greatly it is actually the combination of all three that will ultimately lead to the success, or failure, of the students.

Charlie Carrick, Bernard Cuffling, and the cast of the Arts Club Theatre Company's production of The History Boys. Photo by David Cooper.
Charlie Carrick, Bernard Cuffling, and the cast of the Arts Club Theatre Company’s production of The History Boys. Photo by David Cooper.

There are a number of subplots in playwright Alan Bennett’s script and most of these have to do with sex and sexuality. But this came as no big shock as the cliche tells us it should be expected at an all-boys school.  Whether it is the cocky and self-aware Dakin (Charlie Carrick) after the Headmaster’s secretary, the Dakin-obsessed Posner (Daniel Karasik) who wonders if he is really a homosexual or just going through a “faze”, Hector’s “diddling” of the boys on the back of his motor scooter or ultimately Irwin’s own sexual yearnings, Bennett is not shy about mixing his take on history with his take on sex.

It is actually Hector’s “diddling” that caused me the most discomfort and not in a positive thought provoking way that theatre should.  My discomfort came not just because Hector does it but because of the rather cavalier attitude the boys take with the fact it does happen.  I found it extremely hard to understand how all eight boys would simply accept this to the point of actually trading off with each other for each of Hector’s weekly scooter rides with one of the boys.  And even more perplexing was Posner’s desire to actually participate and Hector’s rejection.  Were it not for the Headmaster’s condemnation when he finds out this was simply too disconnected from reality for me.

Despite my issues with the questionable addition of these sexual subplots, which has everything to do with the playwrights choices and not the actors, where I did have the most problem with the actors here was in understanding only a fraction of what they actually said.  I couldn’t help but think that with a cast more easily able to handle the accents this would have been a completely different show.  Unfortunately with few exceptions I spent more time trying to hear and understand the actors than I did actually hearing what Bennett wrote.

What did work for me here the technical aspects of the show including Marsha Sibhorpe’s lighting, Jamie Nesbitt’s projections and Brian Linds’ sound.  The three worked in perfect harmony to provide some visually interesting transitions between scenes, capturing the sounds of the 80s and adding to the history lessons with the use of projected stills and video across the stage.

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