Watching The History Boys last night, 7th December 2021, at the City Theatre in Durham felt more stand-alone than other productions I have seen. This was for a number of reasons, firstly the intimate and cosy set made the boundary between audience and cast malleable. This meant that each of the actors was able to dance in and out of the fourth wall boosting the elements of comedy and also making for more personable characterisations that felt understood and human.
The staging was fairly dynamic, using only a chair each but arranged differently for each lesson. This was an effective way to draw a distinction between Irwin, played by Oscar Nicholson, and Hector, played by Ben Willows. The lessons with the chairs arranged in rows, all facing the same way, for Irwin mirrored his more cynical teaching style. This contrasted well Hector’s lessons in which the chairs were arranged in a horseshoe shape to emblemise his more relaxed and emotional approach to learning. Visually, this was interesting and did not appear clumsy or serve as a distraction, which can often happen when sets are rearranged throughout a show. This is a credit to the direction, by Luke Blackstock and Lali Rhydderch.
The themes tackled in The History Boys should no doubt come with a warning, discussing issues such as The Holocaust and sexual assault. Feather Theatre Company dealt with these issues well in a truthful and conscientious manner. This was done beautifully by actor Stephen Ledger, player Posner, a ‘small, homosexual from Sheffield’. His commitment to the role was inspired and gave an honest account of a coming-of-age experience. Ledger maintained the comic elements right through the production meaning the content never felt too heavy or draining.
As a collective, all the school boys worked well together and their real friendship was apparent. They bounced off each other and at several points it felt like they were genuinely just having a laugh, which is a lovely thing to watch on stage, and made the entire performance even more organic. Interestingly, all of their characterisations were distinct, not just amongst the boys but with all the characters. This felt quite unusual as with plays such as this, where there are several seemingly similar roles; it is easy for the actors to slip into each other’s characterisations. But, each character was constructed individually allowing their contrasting characters to complement each other.
There were at least three moments I can think of where the performance was actually interrupted by applause. This speaks to the relatability and the effective story-telling. Mimi Nation-Dixon, performing Mrs Lintott, achieved this with natural flare. If I’m honest my initial impression of the character of Mrs Lintott was that she would be fairly flat and uninteresting. However, this was narrow-minded misconception as her character flourished, and actually it was the contrast in her initial performance to her final moments that gave her character an artful and unique rotundity. Her perspective of a female teacher in a male-dominated arena felt fresh. Nation-Dixon articulated the humiliation and disappointed Mrs Lintott felt by the school boys lacking awareness of others in a way which invited cheers and applause from the small audience: a very impressive feat.
Dakin, played by Ben Smart, was another role where the commitment was impressive. His characterisation was very funny, yet natural, and it was clear he was constantly performing, even when the focus was not on him. His expression and attention to detail created an archetypal popular yet intelligent student which built the perfect framework to address issues such as the purpose of education and the ductile quality of a young person’s mind in the way he was shaped by both Irwin and Hector. This direction and portrayal felt apt in delivering some of the key themes in the play; sexual awakening and academic pressure.
Feather Theatre Company’s adaptation of The History Boys is uniquely comic, sensitive and relatable. I would recommend to anyone, a wonderful night out in Durham!
Image Credit: Feather Theatre Company