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Chicago by John Olson

The History Boys
TimeLine Theatre Company

Also see Richard's review of Legally Blonde and John's review of Rock 'n' Roll

History Boys
Will Allan, Govind Kumar, Joel Gross, Michael Peters, Donald Brearley, Rob Fenton, Behzad Dabu, Brad Bukauskas, Alex Weisman
Those of us in America who've had exposure to this dense comedy-drama by Alan Bennett have most likely seen the work of the original cast and director. Whether one saw it on Broadway, in London or in the feature film that was shot between those two stagings—the same cast and director did them all and it's their interpretation we know. The opening of rights to regional productions gives us the opportunity to look at the play from different perspectives, separate the text from those specific performances, and gain additional insight into the author's intentions. Nick Bowling's production for TimeLine Theatre is the first of the piece in Chicago, and one of a just a handful in the U.S since it appeared on Broadway. The production offers a sensational introduction to the play for new audiences as well as a great opportunity for those who have seen it before and want to dig in to it further.

Bowling accomplishes this without any significant rethinking of the play, but as a product of staging it with the resources of a small regional company versus those of either a Broadway producer or Britain's Royal National Theatre. Most significant is the casting of Hector—the middle-aged, but non-traditional, teacher of a group of English boys preparing for entrance exams for Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Though Hector has taught this group before and has much affection for and from them, the school's Headmaster has brought in a rival of sorts for Hector—the younger Irwin, who is to coach them on techniques to improve their chances of winning a place at one of the two prestigious schools. He instructs them on how to create provocative essays that may differentiate them as candidates but that are not necessarily truthful. Hector, on the other side, is opposed to testing of any kind and believes in the value of knowledge for knowledge's sake—whether or not an obvious application for any learning may exist.

Hector was played in the London, Broadway and film versions by Richard Griffiths, whose physical and professional stature and presence (he's a large man and a huge talent) fully commanded the audience's attention whenever he was on stage. Bowling's Hector, Donald Brearley, is a superb actor who gives a deeply touching and vibrant performance, but he doesn't—and this is a good thing—overpower the others on stage. He's matched by Andrew Carter's intense Irwin and Terry Hamilton's menacing Headmaster, Felix Armstrong. Felix, not knowing what to make of Hector's teaching style, is no supporter of him, but his loyalties to the teachers with more traditional methods—Irwin and Dorothy Lintott (Ann Wakefield)—are suspect as well. Without the dominating presence of a Richard Griffiths, The History Boys is much more of an ensemble show. The opposition between characters is brought into greater balance and our sympathies for any character or philosophy must be earned, even though the author's heart is clearly with Hector.

As did the feature film, Bowling's production has a realistic scenic design, distinct from the stylized set by Bob Crowley used for the London and Broadway stagings. Most of this production's action is on a rectangular playing area between two sections of seating—with the area bare except for moveable student desks and a large teacher's desk. The space outside the playing area establishes a school corridor on one end and the boys' individual bedrooms (in which they are occupied with various activities before the curtain and during intermission) on the other. Set designer Brian Sidney Bembridge—a master at using whatever space he has—gives a realistic feel to these spaces as well as to a small balcony at one end which serves as the teacher's lounge.

Bowling's "boys"—reportedly cast from over 200 auditionees—are led by Joel Gross as a handsome, slightly dangerous Dakin. Alex Weisman, a Northwestern University junior who looks much younger, has a take on Posner quite different from that of Samuel Barnett, who originated the role of the only gay and only Jew in the class, and who has an unrequited crush on Dakin. Weisman's Posner is deathly shy and only reluctantly becomes more assertive near the end of the play. Scripps—the kid who's cool enough to pal around with Dakin yet empathetic enough to befriend Posner—is given a complex and thoughtful persona by Will Allan. The remainder—Brad Bukauskas, Behzad Dabu, Rob Fenton, Govind Kumar and Michael Peters—have an energy and roughness about them that feels authentic for a bunch of teenagers, albeit smart ones, living in the working class city of Sheffield in northern England. I'm guessing the regional accents might be less authentic—closer to ones heard in London than the dialect of Yorkshire—but again that's an asset that helps the audience's comprehension.

Imagine you were one of a small group invited to a private reading of this play by original director Nicholas Hytner and you'll get a feeling of the power of seeing these actors up close in TimeLine's intimate theater. Yes, it's really that good, and maybe better because of the authenticity of the production design and focus on character above star power. It makes a strong case for The History Boys as a play that will be revisited and explored for quite some time.

The History Boys will be performed Wednesdays through Sundays through October 18, 2009, at TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington Ave., Chicago. To purchase tickets or for more information, call 773.281.TIME (8463) or visit timelinetheatre.com.


Photo: Lara Goetsch

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-- John Olson



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