The History Boys
A valiant and enjoyable effort
|Eclectic Full Contact Theatre presents|
|The History Boys|
Review by Lauren Whalen
As I write this, Betsy DeVos has just been confirmed as Secretary of Education. Knowing this, it feels sadly fitting that this review is of The History Boys, Alan Bennett’s 2006 Tony Award-winning play about life, love and what “educated” really means. No guns and grizzly bears existed in 1988 England, where a group of young men gather each day for their last term of school to speak dirty words in French, razz their teachers and joke about sex. They’re also trying to get into Oxford and Cambridge. The History Boys is epic, funny, tragic and more than a little dark. Bennett’s script is specific in themes and casting, and very, very difficult to present effectively. Eclectic Theatre Company makes a valiant effort, and succeeds with several wonderful performances and interesting staging. Unfortunately, the production doesn’t quite gel.
The play opens with wheelchair-bound Irwin (Justin Atkinson) looking back on his life and the day everything changed. In flashbacks, he arrives at a small working-class school, to teach history to extraordinary group of male students. Not a single graduate of the previous class had been admitted to Oxbridge (shorthand for Oxford and Cambridge Universities), but these boys are promising, provided they ace the notoriously difficult entrance exam. Much to the disdain of the headmaster (Andrew Pond), the young men spend most of their days with English teacher Hector (David Belew), who believes that education isn’t about teaching to the test, but about poetry, language and music. The headmaster hopes Irwin will give the students the much-needed knowledge for the exam, but Irwin knows it won’t be easy.
The History Boys is anything but easy. Besides Bennett’s multi-themed, witty and polysyllabic script, the cast is large and, aside from history teacher Mrs. Lintott (Lisa Savegnago), all-male. The majority of the actors must look young enough to convincingly play seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds, but also must be strong performers who work well apart and together. One plot point can be extremely problematic if poorly handled, and the challenges of staging the show in a small space (like the Athenaeum Theatre’s Studio Two) are plentiful.
In some ways, Eclectic’s production succeeds. This History Boys is enjoyable from beginning to end, even at its quieter, sadder and more disturbing moments. While the unusual staging doesn’t always work, overall director Katherine Siegel’s decisions make the most of the space and put the audience squarely in the middle of the action. The teenage antics are thoroughly realistic and fun to watch. Belew is inspired as Hector, a haunted man with a secret who only wants to share his knowledge and love of the world, even when such sharing is grossly inappropriate. Though he tends to rush his dialogue, Mathias Blake is cheekily charismatic as Dakin, the class golden boy who’s carrying on an affair (sort of) with the headmaster’s secretary. And while his singing voice isn’t the best, Joshua Servantez is sweet and lovable as class underdog Posner, who is not only Jewish but a closeted homosexual, an outsider longing to fit in.
However, the production is far from perfect. As mentioned before, the staging isn’t always effective, forcing audience members to crane their necks or spend an entire scene looking at the backs of actors’ heads. Dialects are all over the place and in no way consistent. And Atkinson is miscast as the play’s central character. His accent is barely Standard British, let alone regional, and on press night he dropped lines or stumbled over words more than once. While Irwin is at times indecisive and out of sorts in this new-to-him environment, Atkinson can’t seem to settle on any characterization and thus remains unconvincing.
I can’t decide whether The History Boys is slightly beyond Eclectic’s skill set, or if the production will improve with a couple of weekends under its belt. The best interpretations of Bennett’s script (including the 2006 film, penned by Bennett and starring most of the original Broadway cast) present an ultimately lifelike story of a specific place and time. Eclectic’s production is a little looser than I would like, but for fans of the play, still worth seeing.
The History Boys continues through March 5th at Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays 2pm. Tickets are $25-$30, and are available online through OvationTix.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at Eclectic-Theatre.com. (Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes, includes an intermission)
Photos by Ian Smith and Katie Hunter
David Belew (Hector), Justin Atkinson (Irwin), Mathias Blake (Dakin), Taylor Sorrel (Scripps), Joshua Servantez (Posner), Derek Herman (Rudge), Rohan Sinha (Akthar), Mark Yacullo (Crowther), Stephen McClure (Timms), Matthew Harris (Lockwood), Andrew Pond (Headmaster), Lisa Savegnago (Mrs. Lintott), Alexander Utz, Dustin Rothbart (ensemble, understudy)
behind the scenes
Katherine Siegel (director), Amanda Baker (stage manager), Justin Atkinson (production manager), Laura Carney (set design), Tory Helgeson (light design), Catherine Tantillo (costume design), Jessica Lauren Fisher (props design, casting director), Warren Wernick (projections and sound design), Julie Partyka (program design), Katie Hunter (social media and marketing, photography), Ian Smith (photography)