Wednesday, 5 March 2014

"The History Boys": an Exeter University Theatre Company production M&D Room Devonshire House Wednesday 5 March - Saturday 8 March 2014

Exeter University Theatre Company
Aidan Cheng is Douglas Hector
M&D Room Devonshire House
Wed-Sat 5-8 March

Only four weeks after staging the hugely successful production of Tracey Letts' "August: Osage County" at the Northcott Theatre, Exeter University Theatre Company have returned with an equally spectacular production of Alan Bennett's "The History Boys".

Katie Goodsell and Daniella Goldaracena-Parkes have combined their talents to direct a highly charged take on Bennett's 2004 classic. The lead is played by Aidan Cheng, who directed the Theatre with Teeth production of Bruce Robinson's "Withnail and I" at 'Old Timers' in Little Castle Street last December. Possibly inspired by Callum Wragg-Smith's tribute to Richard Griffiths in the role of Uncle Monty, Aidan reappeared as the character for which Richard Griffiths is best remembered, Douglas Hector.

Aidan Cheng
. . . is . . .
Douglas Hector

Will Jones is Lockwood
Ollie McLellan is Smith
Eoin McAndrew is Posner
In a slightly modified line-up Hector has eight students. Andrew Horton is Stuart Dakin, the main protagonist. Eoin McAndrew is David Posner, different and insecure, Jewish and homosexual. Luca Owenbridge is Donald Scripps, the musical evangelical. (Luca plays the piano during the play - several impressive performances.) Will Jones contrasts against these characters as the forceful and down-to-earth James Lockwood.

James Bowen is Timms
Eoin McAndrew is Posner
'acting out'
The remaining four boys have less significant parts to play, and are only referred to by their surnames, but they are played very memorably. Seb Posner (just to confuse matters) is Crowther, a keen amateur actor (which confuses matters further). Most disconcerting of all is Seb's distinct resemblance to Dominic Cooper who was Dakin in the original play and Nicholas Hytner's film adaptation.

Will Jones is James Lockwood
Seb Posner is Crowther
Jack Smail is Rudge
Jack Smail is Rudge, the hearty but not so bright sportsman. James Bowen is Timms, the (only slightly) overweight comic character. Ollie McLellan is Smith, an interesting replacement for the Islamic Akthar who appeared in the original play.

Jack Sheeran is Armstrong
Anya Williams is Dorothy
Jack Sheeran is the Headmaster, Felix Armstrong. Ieuan 
Coombs is the Oxbridge entrance expert brought in by Armstrong to enhance the 'history boys' chances. Anya Williams is the very credible foil to the three other men as Dorothy Lintott, who has prepared the boys factual knowledge for Hector and Irwin to work with.

Ieuan Coombs is Irwin
Jack Sheeran is Armstrong
The play is a strangely indulgent, and indulged, fantasy of Bennett's about a class of boys who all happily tolerate, or even welcome, the highly illegal sexual predations of Hector. They also share a somewhat unlikely interest in homosexuality. When seen in isolated pairs, conversation seems to turn to which boy fancies which rather more often than is really believable.

Luca Owenbridge is Scripps
Seen in the mass, the boys form a surprisingly knowledgeable and
talented, and somewhat camp, chorus line. wisecracks and apposite quotations fly back and forth. Impromptu musical numbers and theatrical turns are de rigeur. Despite the fact that this dazzling repartee bears no resemblance to any grammar school boy's memory of general studies classes, Bennet's carefully staged intellectathons are so beautifully directed and delivered as to appear plausible.

Piano: Luca Owenbridge
Tenor: Eoin McAndrew
The underlying premise of the play would have been problematic in the eighties, when it was set, let alone 2004 when it was released. Hector's serial abuse of his position of trust is made light of by Bennett, and all the other characters are created by Bennett compliant, if not complicit, in his crimes. One feels one is seeing into a part of Alan Bennett's mind which would be better addressed by a forensic psychologist.

Bennett is such a good writer, however, that he manages to take the audience beyond these
Eoin McAndrew is Posner
Seb Posner is Crowther
Jack Smail is Rudge
concerns, and make his fantasy believable. This school (and, one imagines, extended community) where no one blows the whistle, or contacts the appropriate authorities, takes on a life of its own. In this world sexual abuse is accepted (however grudgingly), if perpetrated by a charming old codger with a bountiful supply of witty one-liners.

Essential to Hector's credibility is his unlikely willing victim, Stuart Dakin. In this part, Andrew Horton has the hardest task of all. He must be a convincing heterosexual ladies' man, but also appear to take a sixty year old man's inappropriate advances seriously, and invite homosexual advances from his fellow students, and even other teachers at the school. Carrying off that contradiction convincingly deserves an academy award in itself!

Dorothy Lintott
patiently counsels
the struggling Rudge
(Anya Williams
& Jack Smail)
And Aidan Cheng's Hector is charming. His Yorkshire accent is perfect, his mannerisms endearing, and his air of otherworldly academic enthusiasm infectious. Aidan is nowhere near the size of Richard Griffiths, but matches him in the wealth of character he brings to the role. His hair is whitened to make him appear around sixty, but his acting alone achieves this admirably.

. . . and the unfortunate Hector
(Aidan Cheng & Anya Williams)
Jack Sheeran, as Felix Armstrong, portrays frustrated irritation consummately. Despite Jack having a long time to go before he encounters the institutional imperatives which form and drive Anderson, his realisation of the character carries convincing anger and determination.

An impromptu
French lesson
is a chance for
more horseplay
(Andrew Horton
& James Bowen)
Anya Williams (Sally DeBanis in Shotgun Theatre's "Reefer Madness" February 2012) plays Dorothy Lintott with gripping maturity. Although not in any way instrumental in any of the action, Anya's Dorothy shows a thorough comprehension and understanding of the men's problems and conflicts, and a dogged determination to remain loyal to her friends and do right.

In broken French
Hector tries to explain
(Aidan Cheng & Jack Sheeran)
Ieuan Coombs as Mr Irwin is not only the history supply teacher, but also the narrator of the story. His appearance in a wheelchair at the beginning of the play is confusing, but all becomes clear later. Initially appearing to be a somewhat flash young graduate, Irwin is subsequently shown to be a much more complex character than he appears.

The boys leap to Hector's defence
changing the story to something
more 'acceptable'
This is a hard play to pull off, requiring great stamina to keep the high-energy comedy speeding along. The whole company have created a glorious rendering of Bennett's play. The production is a credit to all of the actors, and to the less visible company members. Producer, Poppy Guleroglu, has brought together the elements with singular skill. The technical side has been handled magnificently by Helen Callaghan and Allan Simpson.

One last chorus
in memory of Douglas Hector
Most importantly, the publicity work of Claire Crawford and Naomi Golding has ensured full booking for all performances. Ticket sales have been so good that Wednesday's afternoon dress rehearsal had to be thrown open to the public to meet the demand for seats.

Another triumph for EUTCo, with more to come. There is the promise of a production of Abi Morgan's "Lovesong" in 'week 11 of this term', i.e. in just two weeks time (19 March).

Exeter students can do anything, it seems!

A final curtain call for the 'back room boys'
Producer: Poppy Guleroglu
Director: Katie Goodsell
Assistant Director: Daniela Golderacena-Parkes
Stage Manager: Helen Callaghan
Technical Manager: Allan Simpson
Publicity Officers: Claire Crawford & Naomi Golding

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