The History Boys #2

By Alan Bennett

The History Boys
The History Boys

Directed by Nick Bowling

At TimeLine Theatre

TimeLine Theatre Company’s Chicago premiere of Tony Award-winning The History Boys is an absolutely smashing production. It is an irreverent and amusing show that will touch your heart and make you think about what it means to become an educated person. In case you saw the movie, let me assure you that this stage production is better…way better. The conflict between two diametrically opposed views of the purpose of education is explored with more clarity and the characters are more fully developed. The eight boarding school lads are perfectly cast and uniformly talented. Director Nick Bowling’s pace is faster with not so much as a drooping moment across a nearly three-hour run. It is nothing less than spectacular.

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The History Boys is set in a boarding school in the north of England during the 80’s. The protagonists are a group of boys who are preparing to take the entrance exam for Cambridge and Oxford and the pressure is on from the headmaster (Terry Hamilton) to get them in. The boys are extremely gifted and certain to get into a range of good, but less prestigious schools; however, the headmaster wants more…more for the boys (as he says), more money for the school (as he means).

To get the job done the headmaster has brought in a young teacher, Irwin (Andrew Carter), to prep the boys for the exam. He is a utilitarian who is uninterested in truth and believes that education is only for the purpose of conveniently regurgitating facts in the service of advancing one’s career. His counterpoint is the boys’ long-time teacher Hector (Donald Brearley), a closeted, eccentric, and loveable old auntie who teaches general studies. Hector’s lively classes consist of “useless” learning, solely for the fun of learning. He uses poetry recitation, drama and even French (though he is the English teacher) to develop critical thinking in his young charges. Hector loves the boys and they know it. He touches them – grooming their minds, whacking their heads, and occasionally groping the cutes ones as they ride on the back of his motorbike. Between the two opposites is Mrs. Lintott (Ann Wakefield). Lintott is a skilled teacher who has prepared the boys in lower levels of history. She loves Hector, but says that he is not really a good teacher because he mostly prepares the boys to handle life’s disappointments. She abhors Irwin’s deliberate twisting of facts in the service of what she refers to as “journalistic” argument, but wants success for the boys as well.

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All of this is played out on what is for my money the most effective small theatre set that I have seen this season. Brian Sidney Bembridge has used every inch of space in the medium sized hall to maximum advantage. There are cut-away walls that lend a sort of Hollywood Squares feel to the boys’ rooms. Classrooms, the teacher lounge, headmaster’s office – the whole school is right there and time passes through the clever use of some wonderful film from multi-media design whiz Mike Tutaj. And then there is the pièce de la résistance, the boys. You will probably love them as much as Hector. Will Allan is terrific as the serious, but funny Scripps. Joel Gross is perfect as Scripps’ best pal, the super-smart heartthrob, Dakin. Alex Weisman is adorable as Posner, a gay Jewish brainiac lad trying to deal with his feelings and his crush on Dakin. Michael Peters delivers a sensitive portrayal that will make you love Rudge, the jock and dunce of the group. Brad Bukauskas, Behzad Dabu, Rob Fenton and Govind Kumar round out the class.

The History Boys is great entertainment that presents a number of valid questions. It is controversial. Some have called it apologia for child molestation; others have said that it presents an unflattering gay stereotype; and there is heated debate regarding what it has to say about the purpose of education. Perhaps the thing I like most about this show is that in the end, it makes no clear statement about any of these. It simply draws out an engaging story and lets the audience take it in on their own terms. Try to see this show.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Randy Hardwick

At TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington, Chicago, IL, Call 773-281-8463, tickets $25 – $35, Wednesdays(6/3, 6/10, 6/17) at 7:30, Thursdays & Fridays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 4 & 8:30 pm, Sundays at 2 pm, running time is 3 hours, 15 minutes with intermission.