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Review: History’s Tough Lessons – Bennett’s play looks at the need to succeed

Posted on 29 January 2009

Education and its measure has long been a matter of debate among educators. Inspiration too, since no one can predict which teachers ultimately have a lasting impact on students. In Alan Bennett’s play “The History Boys,” which is currently being offered by Center Stage at the Southampton Cultural Center, quantifiable results may be what matters to those at the top, but for the students, the implications of education are more telling than the numbers and life’s lessons far more complex than anything they have bargained for.

Michael Disher directs this production of “The History Boys” which is set in Cutlers’ Grammar School in Sheffield, England in the 1980s. The play, which is accompanied by a liberal dose of music by The Cure as well as other period favorites, follows a group of precocious boys preparing for their history entrance exams — the results of which will determine whether they will go onto Oxford or Cambridge — or end up at a decidedly inferior school.

Test results matter greatly to headmaster Felix Armstrong (Daniel Becker). Felix’s fervor is tempered by the school’s only female teacher, the remarkably insightful Mrs. Lintott, (wonderfully portrayed by Vay David). Throughout the play, Mrs. Lintott is a beacon of reason in the midst of chaos, though it doesn’t seem as if she’s always heard above the fray.

In order to boost the boys’ chances on their exams, Felix brings in Irwin (Mark Anderson) a history teacher whose job is to coach the students. The boys quickly find themselves pitted between two educational forces — Irwin and long time General Studies teacher, Hector (John Tramontana). 

Hector is unorthodox in his methods. Behind the locked classroom door, the boys are allowed to climb upon desks, sing, shout, re-enact scenes from old films, and practice French as if they were using it in a Paris brothel. Hector’s methods are about creating well-rounded individuals who can hold their own in debates or at dinner parties. And it may be the boys’ fondness for Hector as a teacher that causes them to overlook his major failing — the fact that he regularly fondles them during forays on his motorbike. The boys are remarkably blasé about this abuse, and look upon it as casually as an unpleasant meal to be endured in fine company.

As a teacher, Irwin, on the other hand, is about results. Barely older than the boys himself, his methods are based on first hand experience and calculated to score points. His view of history is that truth doesn’t matter, instead, he encourages the boys to take unexpected and unorthodox positions on historic events. Taking the road less traveled, reasons Irwin, will get you noticed as an original thinker. 

This cast may be young, but the themes of the play are advanced and Disher has done amazing work with his actors, some of whom are still in high school. They handle difficult subject matter with deftness, believability and maturity. Particularly impressive are the three lead boys.

The sly and calculating Dakin (Christopher D’Amico) is wise beyond his years. His promiscuously solicitous manner leaves many of his fellow students and some staff members squirming uncomfortably.

Also notable is Jacob Boergesson as Scripps. A religious boy more interested in matters related to the Anglican church than the extra-curricular activities his peers are engaged in, Scripps is affable, funny and one terrific piano player. Boergesson’s skill as a pianist are put to good use, and he plays numbers by Rodgers and Hart, Edith Piaf and several others during this show.

Rounding out the trio is Posner (Stephen D’Amico), a sensitive and intelligent boy who is tentative about a number of things in his life, including his sexuality. His desire for Dakin is barely disguised. D’Amico’s ability as a singer compliments Boergesson’s piano skills nicely. Nods also go to Peter Eilenberg for lighting design, as well as Michael Disher and Ken Rowland for their well-designed set which includes a projection screen/blackboard that is used to cleverly enhance the action. 

The idea of history comes up in several intriguing ways in this play and it easily holds the audience’s attention. The notion of revisiting history, viewing it through new eyes, and the way in which it can be changed by seemingly inconsequential decisions are all thought provoking variations on the theme. 

“The History Boys” also questions the ultimate goal of a good education — and its costs, both seen and unforeseen. It’s a topic that seems particularly timely in this era of “No Child Left Behind,” rising taxes, slashed funding  and great expectations. Some things, apparently, never change.

“The History Boys” runs through February 15 at the Southampton Cultural Center, 25 Pond Lane, Southampton. Shows are Thursdays to Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. until February 15. Tickets are $20. Call 287-4377 to reserve.

Above: The history Boys (left to right from rear): Stephen D’Amico, Adam Fronc, Hara Kang, Tim Ferris, Jacob Boergesson, Christopher D’Amico, Taylor Hoge, Mark Anderson (foreground)


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One Response to “Review: History’s Tough Lessons – Bennett’s play looks at the need to succeed”

  1. Thank you for this astute review of the History Boys! I saw the play on Sunday. It was wonderful. It inspires you to think, feel and live! Well worth seeing!

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