★★★★ | The History Boys, Sheffield

Based in the fictional Cutlers Grammar School in Sheffield, this award winning play tells the story of a group of young students as they prepare for university interviews at Oxford and Cambridge.

The headmaster of the school is determined to propel the school up the ranks of the league tables by increasing the number of pupils who are accepted by the prestigious establishments. In his resolve to do so, he enlists a supply teacher called Irwin, whose sole responsibility is to fully prepare the boys by employing a rigid teaching structure and encouraging them to stick strictly to stock answers, whether they believe what they are saying to be true or not. This approach is in stark contrast with that taken by the boy’s favourite teacher, Hector, who is eccentric and laid back, revelling in the joy of knowledge, whilst encouraging the boys in their free thinking and exploration of their own interests, allowing them to forge their own educational path. Unfortunately, one of Hector’s interests is taking the young students out on his motorcycle and touching them up, something that the boys seem to readily accept as harmless fun, but which eventually leads to a confrontation between Hector and the headmaster. As the two teachers and their respective teaching styles clash and the young boys turn into young men, the relationships between the students, both with each other and with the staff, is examined which leads to tension, sexual angst and divided loyalties.

Sheffield Theatres once again excels, this time with their production of this award winning Alan Bennet play, which has a wordy, warm and witty script. Within its critique of the education system and its social commentary on the almost hierarchical nature of learning, the play also explores, both gently and more blatantly, a number of themes surrounding the often painful transition into adulthood and aspects of accepting and coming to terms with homosexuality and sexuality in general. Posner (beautifully played by Oliver Coopersmith) says at one point “I’m a Jew. I’m small. I’m a homosexual. And I live in Sheffield. I’m f***ed”. This neatly sums up his frustration at his status as the youngest of the class and more importantly, his unrequited and unconditional love for his fellow pupil, Dakin (played by Tom Rhys Harris). Dakin is a cocksure and bravado filled young man, who relishes in his ladies’ man status, yet who develops a deep admiration for and relationship with his teacher, Irwin. This leads to the point where Dakin propositions Irwin and offers himself readily; causing Irwin to face his own closeted sexuality. There is also the darker undertone running through the play of the abuse of position and trust by the teachers, Hector who is touching the boys when he takes them out on his motorcycle (much to Posner’s annoyance that it is never “his turn”) through to the direct confrontation between Dakin and Irwin whereby Irwin’s teaching of the importance, or otherwise, of the truth is challenged.The set made excellent use of the Crucible’s unique stage, effortlessly merging the scenes and creating a real school hall feel, from the parquet gym floor to the strip lighting, the PE benches to the plastic chairs. The play was well directed, ensuring the whole audience felt included and addressed. The performances were all of a very high quality, especially from Edwin Thomas who excelled as Irwin in what is his professional stage debut. Matthew Kelly undertook his role of Hector with a quiet confidence, but his performance was overtaken by the lead boys, namely Will Featherstone as Scripps, Tom Rhys Harris as Dakin and Oliver Coopersmith expertly demonstrating the teenage angst of burgeoning sexuality.The play was scattered with bridging sequences for the set changes, which involved short, loud blasts of electro new romantic and punk music accompanied by over exaggerated schoolboy dancing. These segments which sharply transported you back to your own school days were entertaining and nicely contrasted with calmer, more classic aspects of the script. The script was wordy, with long soliloquies delivered by the characters, but was punctuated with warm and gentle comedy delivered by likeable characters. The play was slightly long for me (perhaps it could have been around 20 minutes shorter), but this is not a criticism of the production in any way and more a reflection on the type of theatre I prefer. Overall, it was exceptionally well performed, staged and presented and was a memory invoking, through provoking piece of quasi-nostalgia tinged theatre which tackles head on a number of social issues within the education system.

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The History Boys is currently at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield until the 8th June 2013.