There was a palpable sense of anticipation in the auditorium as the near-capacity audience settled for this production (courtesy of the West Yorkshire Playhouse and Theatre Royal Bath). The set and costumes evoke the sense of time and place well enough and the music is well delivered - but is that enough to ensure a great production of a modern masterpiece?
One of the first things that is apparent from the production is that the script has been subjected to a number of cuts – some more radical than others. However the performance still comes in at a weighty two hours and forty minutes.
My biggest concern is that the interactions of the boys seem rather too rehearsed. The text comes alive when the natural anarchy of teenage lads is allowed to burst through. However all of the business in the production has the air of being rather too considered, too polished. I know it is essential that a play is rehearsed and refined but there is a lack of spontaneity that renders the performance, as a whole, rather flat.
Of course, Bennett’s text is a source of constant delight. It is a cleverly constructed play with enormous heart. It is rich in literary and cultural references – many of which can all too easily be missed. The text survives this lacklustre production well – though the cuts do mean that the audience misses out on a number of moments – both comic and touching.
The History Boys is a play that I know well – some may say too well. Having played the role of Hector in the first Oxford production, it is a script I have lived with for some time. Perhaps this intimate knowledge of the text has coloured my perception of this new production. The audience reaction was certainly positive but, to my mind, the production team have not served Bennett and his creation with sufficient care.
There are some good performances – notably from Penelope Beaumont as Dorothy Lintott and Rob Delaney as Scripps. However the quality is not sustained with the rest of the cast. Some of the best lines are lost due to inadequacies in the performances.
Luckily, the warmth, wit and intelligence of the script manage still to entertain and move us and for that reason, and that reason alone, I would urge people to see the production. Hopefully it will encourage you to seek out the playtext and engage more directly with what Bennett wrote.