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Review: The History Boys

Apparently Catherine Barrie is incapable… of taking a rest from amazing productions.

Fresh off the success of her playwriting debut, the much-lauded Women You Know, she decided to tackle a script voted by The Guardian as ‘the nation’s favourite’. The History Boys, written by Alan Bennett in 2004, has launched and solidified the careers of many eminent actors (such as James Corden and Dominic Cooper). The thespians of St Andrews were therefore given an imposing challenge to live up to, but judging by the reactions of the audience in the Byre Theatre on the night of November 2nd, they exceeded expectations. The production team was formed by some of the best creatives this town has to offer, including the inimitable Henry Empson as producer. Having spoken with many of the audience members, there were some solidly formed opinions… Posner’s (Seb Filho) comedic timing was both mournful and mirthful, Irwin (Marcus Judd) was the perfect scruffy young professor, and Dakin (Sacha Murray Threipland) raised many temperatures. All of the boys were cast to perfection and inhabited their characters without any missed cues. Margot Pue portrayed feminine resignation in the face of male ineptitude with stoic tranquillity. The soundtrack, including tracks by New Order and The Smiths, was impeccable and did more to centre the play in the jaded 80’s than the set itself, which leaned towards the austere post-war chagrin of the 50’s (a decision by Bennett that has previously been critiqued in other productions).

The storyline itself is both confusingly funny and utterly worrisome, especially when portraying the abuse of the boys by their teacher, Hector (Freddie Lawson). It is quite bewildering that Bennett himself finds it ‘harder to forgive Irwin for fiddling with the boy’s minds than Hector for doing the same with their bodies’. Abuse in British single-sex schools is a bogeyman that has still not been properly addressed by law enforcement or the media, and is prevalent to this day throughout the UK. Bennett’s script could have been a damning statement against this intolerable behaviour but instead lets Hector off quite easily. Whilst his character does lose his life in a motorcycle accident, he was never forced to take responsibility for his actions. Perhaps, though, this was the intended message. Systemic abuse is hidden, brushed under the rug for decorum’s sake. Boys are told to hide their emotions and trauma, keeping a stiff upper lip. This obfuscation and erasure inherently impacts the boys’ sexual identity, leading to a confusing culture of buried desires and untested romantic impulses. Posner stirs the sympathetic heart with his unrequited feelings for Dakin, who is instead focussed upon his laddish womanising. When Dakin subsequently develops feelings for Irwin, he furthers the impropriety of student and teacher romance… although the entire audience was seemingly entranced by the intoxicating homoerotic flirtation happening onstage. All in all, I could find no faults in this production, and the entire cast and production team should be commended for their efforts in successfully staging such an eminent cultural touchstone.

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