The biggest irony of putting on a production of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys in Durham comes in its ending: they’re not all Oxbridge rejects. Yet Anna Haines’ production brings out so much more than the themes of the importance of education, and the deep questions about what education really is. The political climate of today’s world, especially the #MeToo movement and the rise in anti-Semitism, makes Bennett’s play, despite being less than fifteen years old and only set in the early 1980s, distinctly relevant.
The Senate Suite in Durham Castle may seem a strange place to stage a production. The room is small, and, sitting in the front row – the actors are incredibly close to you, making it quite an immersive production. Yet the grandeur of the room, coupled with the design of the set, full of shabby looking tables and chairs, makes it a fitting place to stage a play that takes place entirely in a Grammar school. The use of this small space is incredibly impressive, and credit should go to the Haines and her assistant-director, Anusha Persson, for being able to maximise the space and tailor the production to fit it. The use of lighting was great, overseen by technical director Meerav Shah and lighting operator Katie O’Toole. Sometimes it was a little bit off and characters who should’ve been lit were temporarily in darkness, but the use of lighting really made the space feel a lot larger.
The acting in this production is first rate. To be a Durham student and play the role of a student applying to elite universities might sound easy, as clearly, we all have done it. Yet these actors took on more, embodying the problems that their characters go through on the long winding process of applying to university. Rudge and Timms, played by George Tarling and John Broadhead respectively (taking on the roles played by the now stars of stage and screen Russell Tovey and James Corden in the original National Theatre production and the film) brought some great comic moments to what already is a very funny play. Alex Marshall as Posner was also a striking performance, bringing that role of calm studiousness to the sometimes-rowdy grammar school classroom. A scene in which they discuss the Holocaust was incredibly moving, especially Marshall’s performance of a boy trying to bite his tongue, even though what is being said hurts. Ralph Skan aptly performed the role of Scripps, who becomes a de facto narrator throughout much of the show. Ewan South’s Daekin, who although maybe could have been a bit cockier and arrogant, was a fine performance, balancing the need to repress himself with a sex-loving cheeky chappy character. All the boys, the remaining three being Mo Hafeez as Akhtar, Charlie Billingham as Lockwood and Cameron Gergett as Crowther, worked well as an ensemble, their energies bouncing off each other well.
Owen Sparkes’ performance as Hector may have just stolen the show. Going through an entire range of emotions, Sparkes portrays a charismatic, intellectual, but also deeply flawed teacher. His relationship with the boys, built on trust, seemed like a true teacher-student relationship. Sparkes’ general energy in the part diverted eyes towards him in every scene he was in. Max Lindon’s portrayal of Irwin, which although did seem to take a while to get going, was strong in creating much more of an enigma and air of mystery surrounding the character, something that worked well in this production. Talor Hanson brought the role of Linhott down to earth with an especially impassioned monologue about overlooked women in history, and Jake Hathaway looked and felt like the unnamed Headmaster that he portrayed. Hathaway was able to get across the backward nature and lust for power as the Headmaster. It’s only a shame Bennett didn’t include more of him in the script.
If you fancy an evening away from summative and exam stress and instead want to watch a play that sees people stressing about their own upcoming exams, then look no further than Castle Theatre Company’s production of The History Boys. A thoroughly enjoyable evening in beautiful surroundings.
Photograph: Ed Rees Photography