“The wrong end of the stick is the right one” declares the ambitious young teacher Irwin as he inveigles his way onto the general studies timetable slot, thereby displacing – in more senses than one – its resident master Hector. Alan Bennett’s 2004 play The History Boys doesn’t just grasp the stick at both ends, it has a firm grip on the middle as well. This new touring production from the West Yorkshire Playhouse and Bath’s Theatre Royal Productions wields it to fine effect.
Director Christopher Luscombe’s staging is deceptively simple, much aided by Janet Bird’s set of utilitarian chairs and tables on a revolve with sketched back-drops to indicate changes in location. That ensures that we are distracted from neither the words nor the performances. The cast is uniformly good with an especially strong team of young actors as the grammar school boys being groomed for Oxbridge in the 1980s. James Byng’s vulnerable Posner, Kyle Redmond-Jones’ class-flirt Dukin and Rob Delaney’s laid-back Scripps are all top of their class.
This production also allows Irwin a humanity not always apparent in the part. Ben Lambert looks absolutely right and you can see both the ruthlessness which will eventually lead him to television fame (albeit in a wheelchair) and the welter of personal insecurities he has devised means to keep hidden. Ruthlessness is also the keynote to Thomas Wheatley’s Headmaster, so determined to boot his school up the educational league table ladder that he’s prepared to use steel toecaps and hobnails on each rung of the climb. As Mrs Lincott, the teacher who’s seen it all before and knows just how deep to keep her professional head down, Penelope Beaumont is entirely credible.
Star billing goes, of course, to maverick Hector. Gerard Murphy is a cuddly maelstrom tricked out in heather and green, swirling dangerously towards the inevitable collision he partly invites and partly ignores. Hector in Greek myth was doomed to annihilation at the hands of the charismatic Achilles; in this play he is beset by Myrmidons as savage as those in Troilus and Cressida, some of them being of his own creation. Murphy’s is a very fine and ultimately moving performance in a part which has much more to it than outward flamboyance and inner dissatisfaction.
I was lucky at school. There were no female Hectors on the staff, but there were mistresses whose enthusiasm for history and literature broke down their subjects' nominal boundaries – the ones which formed the examination boards’ syllabuses – to encompass the art, the architecture and the music behind the set French and English texts or periods of history we were officially studying. Perhaps all teenagers need to have a Hector in the staffroom. Head teachers, naturally, will never agree to it willingly.