Theatre ReviewsTom Williams

The History Boys

By Alan Bennett

The History Boys
The History Boys at TimeLineTheatre

Directed by Nick Bowling

At TimeLine Theatre

Provocative school drama a thought-provoking polemic on the purpose of education.

Kudos to TimeLine Theatre and director Nick Bowling, with help from a interesting set (designed by Brian Sidney Bembridge) and a outstanding blend of mature and young talents. 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 the three hours keeping us engaged. This is an idea play with heart that is filled with fully developed characters including the faculty and the students.

The History Boys
The History Boys

Hector (Donald Brearley) 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 (Andrew Carter) is hired by headmaster (Terry Hamilton) 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 (Will Allan); Akthar (Behzad Dabu); Lockwood (Rob Fenton); Dakin (Joel Gross); Rudge (Michael Peters); Crowther (Govind Kumar) and Posner (Alex Weisman) 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 tour de force that featured strong performances from Donald Brearley as Hector, Andrew Carter as Irwin and Joel Gross as Dakin. My favorite performance was by Alex Weisman as Posner, the intense gay boy madly in love with Dakin and mesmerized by Hector.

The History Boys is a major triumph for Nick Bowling and TimeLine Theatre. Their bold production is flawless, fluid and flowing. The polish of the acting is amazing. I felt that I was in school with the boys as I struggled with the ideas and arguments presented. This is grand theatre that bridges the gap between an engaging story with empathetic characters and a work of intellectual ideas and philosophical dilemmas. That combination yields an exciting and deeply moving night at the theatre. You’ll long remember your time in Hector’s class. This play begs to be seen again just to grasp all its content.

Highly Recommended

Tom Williams

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.

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