The Claus Moser Theatre has been employed in recent years for lecture and other purposes and I'd forgotten what a stark, utilitarian aspect it presents for drama with its magnolia-and-black colour scheme and its pedagogical apparatus on view. Probably that's why it was chosen as the space for this production. The minor downside was that the many actors' entrances and exits were effected at long range from the rear of the playing space, and over a clunky floor, so the effect was slightly clumsy as the cast moved to and from the three battered tables and eight assorted chairs that in various formations made up the Yorkshire grammar school set.
In a 2006 article for the Guardian academic John Sutherland complained about Alan Bennett's prejudice and snobbery in the film of the play vis à vis Oxbridge and provincial universities, and indeed Bennett seemed to think the very mention of Sheffield or Loughborough Universities deserving of a laugh – though I was interested to note that few of this first night audience seemed to share his view.
I doubt whether Professor Sutherland would cavil at the discussion in the play of the general purpose of knowledge and education. Are they meant to be of practical, quantifiable use, a means to the end of passing exams and attaining the Holy Grail of Oxbridge entrance as the Headmaster wishes? Or are they meant to inspire personal growth and wisdom, and to help students through painful experiences, as History teacher Mr Hector believes? Bennett is notably successful in showing the complexity of Hector's character that lurks within his liberal educational standpoint, and equally interesting in his giving plenty of stage time to the moral struggles of the supplementary teacher Mr Irwin who teaches the boys to take unconventional positions on historical questions — even if they don’t believe in the truth of their argument.
But were Professor Sutherland voicing his objection today to The History Boys' standing as a contemporary classic, he might be focusing his ire more upon Bennett's treatment of the sexual abuse by their teachers of the pupils. I think it's fair to say this aspect of the script leaves a pretty sour taste in the mouth today. Bennett's overall attitude to this is not in my view far removed from a bout of sniggering behind the bicycle shed. I don't know that sexual exploitation of young people by figures of authority was amusing in 2004; it was certainly treated more casually in the public mind. But it is not and cannot be funny in 2018.
As Hector, Jack Doyle, whom I've seen as a very good Dorian Gray and also a swaggering Bardolph in Henry IV pt.1, has the difficult task of conveying a superficially attractive personality, one dedicated to his educational purpose, while demonstrating a degree of narcissism and self-satisfaction that lead him to abuse the power he has attained by the sexual abuse of his pupils. Until his exposure, Doyle in a natty red bow tie is all brittle smiles, and he cleverly shows how Hector employs literature as a distancing device between himself and reality. His sordid actions, he seems to hope, will assume a more respectable, even a romantic appearance when viewed through the sanitising lens of poetry. This is another quality performance by a talented actor.
Kavya Deshpande is a soft-spoken Irwin, no doubt in order to present a clear contrast to the ebullient Hector, but there's a risk that underplaying can turn into dramatic diffidence. As the blustering headmaster, Albert McIntosh perhaps lacked a bit of the necessary faux-gravitas, though at the time of Hector's crisis he managed very nicely the character's abrupt switch from glib exam success-hunting to dispensing of unbending authority. Kat Collison was most persuasive as Mrs Lintott the female teacher, initially a somewhat detached observer of her colleagues' whims and oddities, then developing into a more engaged, even tetchy figure.
Director Georgia Nicholson had clearly taken a lot of care to differentiate her seven sixth formers one from another, and the collaboration between her and her actors was a fruitful one. Thus within the generalised mixture from the boys of childish clowning and sexual inexperience masquerading as experience, we had the smug Dakin (Joe Woodman), the histrionic Rudge (Louis Cunningham, very good in his mock interview scene and again later), the troubled Jewish lad Posner (Anusia Battersby, who also sang well, including as Edith Piaf, accompanied by Zach Burns on keyboards). I was also taken by Burns's low-key but chippy acting of Scripps and his authentic north-eastern accent (other accents waxed and waned in the Yorkshire breeze all evening!). Nicholson was clearly aware of the danger of the play becoming too static and talky, and consequently found ways of injecting plenty of movement into the chat.
This was a skilful, energetic production. I found it instructive that the often broad, scatological humour on stage was in the main greeted by smiles rather than belly laughs by the audience. Whether this was because Bennett's comedy is not quite as humorous as he imagined it was, or because unfolding events and attitudes in the 14 years since he wrote it has sharpened one's sensibilities to the sex and sexuality themes, is something that audiences for the rest of the week will have to decide for themselves.