The History Boys already has the feel of a classic. It’s so new, and yet seems so well-thumbed. And as West Yorkshire Playhouse’s collaborative effort with Theatre Royal Bath, arrives relatively hot on the heels of the National Theatre's inaugural History Boys, comparisons are inevitable.
Questioning whether Kyle Redmond-Jones will cut as dashing a figure as Dominic Cooper, or how the part of Hector will be handled by Gerard Murphy after Richard Griffith’s epic performance, would be rather cheap though. In this new presentation of Alan Bennett’s tale of eight Yorkshire Grammar school sixth-formers, chasing the slim possibility of Oxbridge places with the aid of their teachers, it’s only fair to the obvious efforts of cast and crew that the slate be wiped – marginally – clean.
Murphy cuts a sympathetic figure, as can be expected, with touching eccentricity; the many quivering shakes of his jowls as he professes disappointment with his pupils’ behaviour are perfect comic gestures. Little clutches of his hand to his chest with excitement and affection are endearingly deployed mannerisms. Hector’s green and purple bow tie, three-piece suit and flaxen strawberry blonde hair all reinforce the literary echo of Kenneth Grahame’s Toad of Toad Hall.
Redmond-Jones brings less cheek-laden vigour and instead more intensity to the role, subtle but no less appealing for his arrogant assurance. As for the rest of the boys, ripping onto the stage like a troop of whippet hounds, one by one the clan of adolescents claim their own individuality, and the strength of casting shows strongly here. This is ensemble acting but with each element carefully chosen and given its own edge, and the classroom banter conjured up with lightning precision is mesmerising. Chris Keegan as Timms is the joker, a clown drawing gusts of laughter from both the boys and the audience; Peter McGovern’s deadpan bluntness as rugby dummy Rudge is a treat; Beruce Khan is a chirpy Akthar; Rob Delaney’s piano-playing Scripp’s is an even keel of calm; Tom Reed (Crowther) and George Banks (Lockwood) score on many points for their part in the schoolroom madness.
Object of Dakin’s avid interest, Ben Lambert’s Irwin is a droll purveyor of the cheat’s path to Oxbridge. Penelope Beaumont’ challengingly arch delivery and wry observations as Mrs Lintott are always bites of genius. Suitably for the times, there’s a hint of the stricken MP in Thomas Wheatley’s Headmaster, played with greater earnestness and less of the waspish sarcasm that has previously been found in the role.
Highlights absolutely must include the rousing choruses of the boys, but it is in moments like the emotionally and sexually charged silence shared by Posner (an appealingly open, saintly voiced James Byng) and Hector that are enthralling, knowledge and desire stretching out as the two sit side by side. Likewise, Hector’s breakdown in front of the boys in the classroom after the Headmaster effectively blackmails him into early retirement is acutely handled.
Musical director Malcolm McKee brings to the classroom table some truly lovely arrangements of monastic hymns to contrast the brash energy of Eighties tracks like A-ha’s Take On Me that tide us between scenes.
In Janet Bird’s stage design, slow rotations of the central stage piece at appropriate points in the action underscores the revolution of time that is the topic of the boys’ lessons. The illustrious graph paper of every schoolchild’s youth – pale green lines in repetitive squares – figures as the witty base for effective, swift-changing backdrops. Notably, the filmed projections used at the National have been dispensed with entirely, resulting in some snappily paced action.
All in all, director Christopher Luscombe’s production plays out with panache, and whilst not vastly different from the original History Boys, being far too soon to shake up an audience’s fledgling comprehension of it radically, it is undoubtedly full of the vitality of a new decade.