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The History Boys (Colchester, Mercury Theatre)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Mounting a new production of what is arguably Alan Bennett's most successful play has given director Daniel Buckroyd the chance to stamp a different pattern on it. The central character, of course, remains that of Hector, the maverick teacher, but Stephen Ley's performance suggests vulnerability as well as Dionysian enthusiasms. It throws an alternative spotlight on the pupils and staff members with whom he engages in so many ways.

Those pupils are an excellent, well-contrasted bunch. Philip Labey's Posner is an excellently rounded study of an outsider, and he puts over his songs beautifully. Scott Arthur's cock o' the walk Dakin is another credible and good portrait, this one is of a teenager "on the make". The early set-piece where a french language improvisation morphs from a Parisian brothel to a First World War field hospital deservedly elicited applause.

Mrs Lincott is the history mistress who believes in facts. In Liza Sadovy's characterisation you watch a woman who has lost whatever enthusiasm for either her subject or teaching it, knows that this makes her staff position exposed, but cannot find the resources in herself to make any changes. What will be, will be. Freddie Machin's Irwin, that historian with a gift for sound-bites, so economical with any type of truth, also rings true. You cannot like him, but you understand him.

Designer Dan Allsopp uses a central revolve to take us from classroom to staffroom to the study where headmaster Ignatius Anthony fumes over examination league tables and the weight of parental and gubernatorial opinion. In both staffroom and study, Ley shows us a man who is not really at home in either place. Only in the classroom (and on his motor-bike) can he flourish as he wants – needs – to do. "Truth is rarely pure and never simple" wrote Wilde. You could say the same about education.


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