The History Boys, Studio Theatre

I have, at present, only two bookcases, with probably six shelves total. It's a sad and sorry state of affairs, and while for the last two years I've tried to resist, whenever possible, the urge to buy more books, certain exceptions arise. Many of them join the careful piles on my radiator, on my floor, or on my windowsill, but every so often, a restructuring occurs and certain books get shifted. Some ascend to the heady heights of Shelf Space while some are demoted to piles or even, tragically, donated to libraries and book stores. I tell you this because I have no shame. Also, I'm taking my usual roundabout way of making a point.

The History Boys is on my primary theatre shelf, the one with my good editions of Shakespeare, my battered Tom Stoppards, my beloved (and oh-so-sexy) Marlowe, my beautiful used copies of Christopher Fry, and a few choice others. It's prime territory and Alan Bennett's play ascended in shockingly quick fashion. I DEVOURED the play. I blogged about it. I feverishly underlined bits and pulled down my French dictionary from its place on the reference sill. Since then, I've seen the film version with the original London cast half a dozen times, listened to the Radio 3 broadcast of the play, seen the West End production last spring and now, finally, seen the production at the Studio Theatre.

All of this is to say, Yes. I have a crush on this play. I make eyes at it across the room and make a point of showing up at the parties that I KNOW it'll be attending. I've got it bad. So when I see it, in any incarnation, my expectations are high. I bit my lip in trepidation and clutched my friend's hand as the house lights dimmed at the Studio Theatre last Friday night.

With very, VERY few exceptions, I was NOT disappointed. In fact, I was THRILLED.

This is a play of MOMENTS and turning points, of the exquisite truth in compound adjectives and the power of the subjunctive mood, of WORDS and adolescence and potential, realised and wasted and only sometimes reclaimed. For a play set in the 80s in Sheffield, England, and revolving around an exam that doesn't even exist anymore, it's immediacy is startling.

For my own part, Joy Zinoman's production captured all of these things. It's a play that definitely rests upon the shoulders of the History Boys of the title- eight students preparing for the entrance exams to Cambridge and Oxford. They must be both instantly recognizable and yet extraordinary. Just LOOK at the dialogue they have:

Dakin: Lecher though one is - or aspires to be - it occurs to me that the lot of woman cannot be easy, who must suffer such inexpert fumblings, virtually on a daily basis. Are we scarred for life, do you think?

Scripps: We must hope so.


But the cast herein assembled handles it all BEAUTIFULLY. There's an interesting touch in this production- the set design by Russell Methany (which is quite clever in its sparseness and utter adaptability) allows for two levels of space at the edges of the theatre, with doorframe-esque openings in which boys appear CONSTANTLY during the play. They lounge, read, and gaze soulfully out over the audience as the action takes place onstage. As the four unnamed ensemble boys look on during the classroom scenes, it's an echo of your own longings from the audience. You AREN'T among the privileged few, this ISN'T your teacher and those aren't your friends, but you do long to be among them. As they fly through a BRILLIANT scene done entirely in French (ou tous les étudiants utilisent le subjonctif et le conditionnel, bien sur), you realise through the laughter that they've managed to create something truly wonderful onstage. There's a wonderful camaraderie and complicity among the boys that had me wallowing in nostalgia for my own Cleverer Than Thou school friends. Nick Stevens in particular has a quick and lively wit as Timms that is particularly of note- it's a fun role that he takes full advantage of, but never to the detriment of the text, character, or overall movement of the play. It's a delight to see. One could wish that as Posner, Owen Scott could take a moment to note his castmate's technique- Posner has a fair share of some of the play's best lines, but at several moments on Friday's performance, Scott seemed a trifle too aware of the imminent audience reaction. A few too many lines were, for my taste, served up with an unnecessary punch (something that even veteran Floyd King fell prey to at a few key moments).

Let it be known: as Hector, Floyd King works wonders. He dazzles as the showman teacher everyone longs to have had and, in a moment, can turn and reveal the flaws and pain that bring the façade crashing into a human reality. It's a magnificent role he marvelously performs and does well to illustrate why he's regarded as one of DC's finest actors.

As the rival teacher, Irwin, Simon Kendall does a fine job throughout but truly shines in his scenes with Jay Sullivan, the rakish Dakin. Their confrontation in the play's final fifteen minutes was THRILLING and thrumming and setting off sparks throughout the theatre. As I noted to my companion for the evening, it was also SMOKIN' HOT. Their characters' relationship is fraught with all manner of intoxicating tension, power plays, and a few moments where raw honesty breaks free from underneath the habitually wry, cocked eyebrow. It's DELICIOUS to watch and I applaud both actors enormously.

I also want to send a shout out to the other two members of the school staff- Tana Hicken as Mrs. Lintott and James Slaughter as the Headmaster. Hicken's is a role that can easily fall flat, but her Totty sparkles. Slaughter manages to make the Headmaster REAL in a way I hadn't seen before- instead of a cartoon, he presents someone far more recognizable and thereby far MORE of a threat. Well done to them both.

An idle Might Have Been- music is a HUGE part of the play and is used throughout. I would wish that there Might Have Been a little more use of the piano in transitions and a little LESS of the blaring 80s pop, which became progressively more intrusive as the evening progressed. *shrug* That could just be me, but with a trained musician in the cast as Scripps (a fine Ben Diskant), there seems little reason to underuse his talents. The pop music adds a layer of separation between a contemporary audience and the action onstage that seems forced and unnecessary when half the appeal for the play (IMO) is that it feels so very close to home and nothing like a period piece. There's no need to turn it into one.

For my money, Studio has produced a damn fine production of a damn fine play. It's well cast, cunningly directed, and now EXTENDED! AGAIN! So you all have time to go see it. And hey- I might even be there for a second round. I'll be the one gazing starry-eyed in the direction of the stage, watching my lovely play Do It's Thing.

I also want to take this moment to create my own system of rating. I'm not much of a person for stars or thumbs up or smiley faces or any other objective rating system.

I choose CAPSLOCK!

So on a CAPSLOCK! scale, I say that The History Boys at Studio is a GOGOGOGO NOW!!!!! production. So there. :D


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