The History Boys is the nation’s favorite play, and I can absolutely understand why. It’s funny, irreverent, ultimately heartwarming, and it provides a positive view of an experience almost every briton has had. I had a teacher like Hector myself, sans-abuse, and I know the positive impact a person like that can have. And this production brought a lot of that emotion that I know too well. But the energy that makes those moments, and this play, special, wasn’t there, and that lethargy, unfortunately, brought the play down from its peak.
The time is the 80s, and some boys want to go to Oxbridge. The only problem? Getting in. Teaching them is Ms. Lintot, a by-the-book, old-school teacher, Irwin, a young brash historian, and Hector, a man more concerned with teaching life than tests. It’s a formula for success, and there were a lot of exceptionally entertaining moments in this play – the notorious prostitute scene and most of Rudge’s time on stage being notable ones. But that energy was poorly distributed throughout the play and was too distributed on the comic moments rather than the heartfelt ones. The play was not boring, far from it. Lethargic is much more like it – simply slower than it ought be. That lethargy was most noticeable in the scene transitions, which featured actors colliding in a doorframe, and were on the whole awkward and lengthy.
Now we come to the elephant in the room. The History Boys is, after all, a difficult play to talk about today because at its center lies a core conceit – a person’s good qualities are more important than their abuses. Back in the optimistic days of 2004, that would’ve been good enough, but the year is 2018, and a play in which a sexual abuser is seemingly pardoned because he’s a cool guy seems disturbingly tone deaf. While I didn’t expect this production to make that its core theme, some engagement was necessary to simply be current.
However, there were some great lights in this play, most noticeably the teachers. Ed Polsue (Hector) and Seb Allum (Irwin) were perfect as Hector and Irwin, both bringing an incredible degree of pathos and vibrancy, not to mention much needed energy to the stage. Bailey Fear (Rudge) and Tom Caruth (Timms) brought an extraordinary amount of humor as Timms and Rudge, especially in the background of scenes, and were the standout pupils for me. The set design too managed to near perfectly evoke my year spent in trailers while my school was being renovated. While the pieces the actors interacted with were somewhat clunky, the overall mood set by the design made up for it.
I believe that The History Boys is a great play, and there’s a reason why it is beloved. This play had a lot of the reasons why – humor, heart, and earnestness. But it lacked energy, and it did not adapt to a time and place that is simply different than the days in which it was written. It was simple and traditional and needed much more than that to be incredible.