MUST SEEREVIEWSTheatre ReviewsTom Williams

The History Boys

By Alan Bennett.

Directed by Katherine Siegel.

Produced by Eclectic Full Contact Theatre.

At the Athenaeum Theatre, Chicago.

British Grammar school comes alive with unruly bunch of bright boys.

Not seen since 2009 in Chicago at TimeLine Theatre, Alan Bennett’s The History Boys is a worthy but difficult to mount play.  But under the smart direction by Katherine Siegel, Eclectic Full Contact Theatre company has presented a most engaging production of The History Boys!

The History Boys covers the life of eight English boys prepping for their entrance exams designed to get them into Oxford or Cambridge. But playwright Alan Bennett has a much larger agenda than merely a coming of age story or a debate about the purpose and style of education. He tackles issues such as sexual identity, teen angst and the role of teachers as mentors to their students. Filled with funny sketches, musical numbers, intellectual debates, poetry quotes, acting out of movies, both internal and directly to the audience monologues, The History Boys easily sweeps through nearly three hours keeping us involved. This is an idea play with heart that is filled with fully developed characters including the faculty and the students.

Hector (a terrific David Belew) is the wacky maverick teacher who uses fun teaching techniques to stimulate creative thought and spontaneity in his students. He is always challenging the boys to be different as both he and his charges love to showoff while spouting poetry or imitating old movies. Hector is the ultimate anti-academic who tries to get the boys to enjoy learning for its own sake. Irwin (Justin Atkinson) is hired by headmaster (Andrew Pond) to prep the boys as grade mechanics so they will pass their college exams. Irwin takes a provocative view of history offering the boys a new thought process that moves beyond the mere facts of history. Irwin treats history like journalism. Bennett has much to say in this interesting perspective.

The eight boys: Scripps (Taylor Sorrel); Akthar (Rohan Sinha); Lockwood (Matthew Harris); Dakin (Mathias Blake); Rudge (Derek Herman); Crowther (Mark Yacull0) and Posner (Joshua Servanterz) were a smart, aware and impressionistic group seeking their intellectual and sexual identities. There is a strong gay undertone to the play that eventually becomes a key element.

Bennett has structured a verbally dense work full of witty one-liners and intense debates with funny and very human actions. The plot twists are surprising and plausible. Bennett continues to push his theme emphasizing presentation over substance—style over truth. While the drama is very ‘British,’ it is a stunningly entertaining work that engages us to the point that we grow to appreciate the characters while we delight in their foibles, flaws and struggles.

The History Boys is an ensemble triumph that features strong performances from all the boys, especially from Mathias Blake as the charismatic student, Dakin. Joshua Servantez, as Posner, is the low keyed Jewish boy who believes he may be gay. But the entire play rests on the fabulous  work by David Belew as the maverick yet lovable teacher, Hector. Belew’s insensitivity, rich verbal dexterity and genuine sincerity wins the boys and us completely. Justin Atkinson, as Irwin and Andrew Pond, as the Headmaster offered fine performances.

Utilizing a special staging in Studio 2 at the Athenaeum Theatre, director Siegel makes all the manic scene changes work effectively.  The History Boys is the finest show that I’ve seen by the ambitious Eclectic Full Contact Theatre. It is a “must see’ show that you’ll enjoy.

Highly Recommended.

Tom Williams.

At the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport, Chicago, IL, call773-935-6860, tickets $25 – $30, Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 pm, Matinees  at 2 pm on select Saturdays and all Sundays, running time is 2hours, 50 minutes with intermission, through March 5, 2017.