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Two New History Boys On ... Bennett

George Banks and Chris Keegan are starring in the new production of The History Boys by Alan Bennett, a joint-production by West Yorkshire Playhouse and Theatre Royal Bath. They play Lockwood and Timms respectively.

George’s most recent theatre credits include: The Countback Kid (Quantum Theatre for Science) and Country Music (The Cockpit Theatre). Film and radio credits include: Shadow Observers, Wood Green and Vital Statistics.

George has also lent his voice to several documentaries and computer games, including Harry Potter: Quidditch World Cup and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and will be featuring in two radio plays, Baby and Underground Eden, to be released in 2010.

Chris trained at the Drama Centre London in 2009. Credits while training include: The Kitchen, As You Like It (Cochrane Theatre) and Sense (Southwark Playhouse).

His television credits include: Doctors and Hustle. Playing Timms in The History Boys is Chris’ first professional stage role.

Everybody knows The History Boys. Perhaps the great modern literary classic of the Noughties, Alan Bennett’s play has touched the entire country, whether it be through Nick Hytner’s original National Theatre production in 2005, or the more recent film which Hytner also directed, starring the same cast.

The History Boys follows a talented class of school boys in a Yorkshire Grammar school as they pursue university places, and the contrasting methods their teachers take to the task of bringing them to Oxbridge level.

The film created huge careers for, amongst others, Dominic Cooper who played popular schoolboy Dakin, and James Corden who took the role of funny boy Timms, who went on to co-write and star in BBC’s series Gavin and Stacy. As the seventh top UK film to be released across the UK in 2006, The History Boys grossed £4.2 million at the Box Office.

Taking all this into consideration, the second production of The History Boys after its National Theatre debut is bound to receive a lot of attention. Speaking with two of the new History Boys on Wednesday morning over hot chocolate, however, impressively the pressure of high expectations doesn’t manifest itself. Yorkshire’s own Chris Keegan, a Hebden Bridge native who takes the role of Timms, and George Banks – hailing from Watford – who plays Lockwood, are calm personified. Unless you catch them in rehearsal of course, when as George tells me they’re much more boisterous, although he picks his words carefully: “I suppose I get excited – enthusiastic.” Quick as a shot, Chris is happy to join George in ridiculing such self-deprecation: “Enthusiastic, that’s a nice way of putting it!”

Conversation flows between the two easily, and it should do – they live together outside of rehearsals, as “most of the cast do”. When I ask them what it’s been like trying to get back into classroom camaraderie several years after leaving school, George’s knowing, slightly evil laughter and Chris’s expression are particularly revealing. “Well, it’s been really... easy!” they both confess, and Chris elaborates, “You get a bunch of twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty-four-year olds in the same room together, and – well, you seem to get into it automatically, the jokes, taunts, the occasional prank.”

The production will no doubt derive much of its playful dynamic onstage from the natural exuberance of the cast that I catch a glimpse of during this interview. And as George points out, The History Boys is so reliant upon its portrayal of the close relationship the Grammar school class has, that without it, “the whole thing would fall flat. Being able to believe that it could happen is crucial.”

Although they wouldn’t impart to me the full comedic highlights of their performance, in case I spilled them unceremoniously across Whatsonstage’s wicked gossip column, George and Chris offer enough hints and tasters of the joys to come in January for Theatre Royal Bath’s punters, and in February when doors open to the public at the West Yorkshire Playhouse (before they depart for a national tour).

Chris describes, “Give or take one or two, all of mine are laugh lines, I’m quite literally the clown. I did feel pressure as we started. Particularly for one scene, which is the scene George and I share. The characters work on recreating a scene from Now, Voyager - the cigarette scene. Reading it through, the whole page of dialogue is geared for laughs. I thought, Oh, I’ve got to make everyone laugh... I’m playing a female character and doing it with broad Yorkshire accent!”

Apparently, they really “can’t say what Chris does in one scene, when he get his results,” and the conversation becomes rather cryptic, but luckily the boys are persuaded to elaborate, and George gives in first: “When Chris busts out a dance move, I can’t reveal what, it’s amazing.” Finally, I get a little more detail from Chris himself: “There is an onstage moment, near the end of the second half, which is an unexpected dance move, for someone of my size!”

Another moment to look forward to, as George recounts, “is a bit in the French scene, when Timms is a prostitute. I have to basically wiggle Chris’s breasts, in Kyle’s face.”

Chris adds, “I get cupped. Gratuitously cupped!”

Swiftly, George suggests with irony, “That’s quite a tender moment.”

Beneath Chris’ and George’s tales of high jinks and merriment though, there lies a depth of understanding and commitment to creating a fresh, intelligent new production that doesn’t rely upon the original for credibility.

George reveals that he didn’t have a huge knowledge of Alan Bennett’s work before he started, although he “knew of the plays, Talking Heads, that kind of thing, because they’re so much a part of British culture. But I’m a big fan of his work now – as soon as I found out we were working on him I read a lot of his plays, and really got into his writing... He roots his plays in something quite serious, strong, and then filters it out so you don’t notice what’s being said to you – you’re just watching something that’s enjoyable. Then afterwards you come away thinking, ‘Well actually, that’s made me think about a hell of a lot of things.’”

In contrast, Chris has been a Bennett fan for a long time: “It’s difficult to be an English actor and not be an Alan Bennett fan, really – it’s sacrilege if you’re not, you’ll get cast out,” he jokes, to amused snorts of laughter from George. He goes on, “When I got the part, I found myself thinking, the guy who played my character previously is James Corden! That didn’t faze me, but made me realise that I needed to actively create my own character, rather than try to recreate his. I think I’ve got something that’s my own now.”

Interestingly, although Bennett has had a hand in the production itself, talking to director Christopher Luscombe, and “had an input into the casting as well, he saw all our C.V.s and head shots,” as Chris says, “he doesn’t go and see all of the plays, as a rule. He goes to see the initial one, but not the subsequent ones, any revivals.”

George adds, “He is coming in for a question and answer session here at the Playhouse though - which is lovely, because obviously he’s from Yorkshire, so -” and here, George adopts a Yorkshire accent “- he’s coming back to his own land!”

Of course, no interview on The History Boys could progress without touching on the question of the play’s criticism in some circles, of glorifying inappropriate student-teacher relations. When I raise the concerns of critics like Johann Hari (The Independent), and Louise Jury (The Evening Standard) over the potentially sensitive issue, the boys become thoughtful.

Chris begins: “Again, the glory of the writing, its intelligence, is that when you really look at the production, you begin to question whether it’s teacher abuse. It’s certainly an abuse of -” Here George nips in to suggest “power”, for Chris to continue, “Yes, power, but you don’t hate Hector. It’s so cleverly written that you seem to see it from Hector’s point of view by the end... The boys seem to see it as an exchange. He gives them these classes that they love, and that they’re storing up inside themselves, and in exchange they go on the motorbike with him. It’s odd when you look at it, but...”

George goes on, “It is odd, because when you talk about it, it seems so wrong, but the way it’s written, you see Hector’s soul really, and it deals with it very sensitively. And then, especially between Dakin and Irwin, it’s about two people, not just a pupil and a teacher. The play’s very much about human beings.” By the end of our interview, the forthcoming, honest, and humorous approach that Chris and George take to The History Boys is telling.

As the boys are called upon to return to rehearsals, I ask one last, crucial, question before they’re ushered away: what was their favourite school dinner as a child?

Quick as a shot, Chris jumps in: “I know that straight off – it was a dessert, treacle tart, treacle sponge. The one that everyone had, made by the same company and dished out to all the schools.” George decides, “My favourite was the turkey burgers. For 85p, they were fantastic!” And if the characteristic good humour and energy of its cast is anything to go by, the production will be just as delicious.

- Chris Keegan and George Banks were talking to Vicky Ellis

The History Boys is at Theatre Royal Bath from 25 January and West Yorkshire Playhouse from 3 February, before commencing a national tour.


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