Thursday, 7 September 2017

The History Boys, Everyman, Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre

Alan Bennett is often treated as an English national treasure, something safe and comfortable and fluffy. But that doesn't quite square with the reality of what he writes - there's a lurking interrogating mind that doesn't just reinforce simple opinions, that challenges and provokes. "The History Boys" is one of the major plays of the 2000s, but it's a treacherous one, starting as a play about education before spinning off into wider questions about politics, culture, sexuality, feminism and the class divide... while still being very much focused on what goes on in preparing 8 young men for their future beyond high school.

Everyman's production captures the play exactly in all its dense complexity, in a production that flows magnificently - fleet of foot when it needs to be (if directors around town see this for nothing else (and they have multiple reasons to see this), they should see this simply to understand this is how you do scene transitions, without dead air), but taking the time to delve deeply and embrace the silences between words - particularly during the highly-charged lesson about Thomas Hardy at the end of act one. It is expertly cast, a tight ensemble that also gives individuals time to bask in the limelight on their own. In the round, where nobody is more than two rows back, it's an intimate and engrossing experience.

At the centre is Chris Baldock as Hector. He's in many ways a Falstaffian figure (not just through the stomach padding and beard, also through the humour and cajoling and in the sense that, fun to be around though he is, he may not be the most practical or safe pair of hands to be around), and Baldock captures him exactly in the sense that he, too, may be a little bit of a boy that never quite grew up. Hayden Splitt as Irwin is the outsider-who-comes-in-and-provokes. His is in some ways the more difficult job - he's the voice of practicality, of accommodating the realities of presentation and spin (it's no surprise that in flashforwards, he's a politician), but there's just enough of a sense that his brash confidence is a somewhat brittle facade and could be broken through at any moment. Alice Ferguson as Mrs Lintott combines the characteristics of confidante and confronter - she doesn't let anyone get away with anything, yet somehow remains compassionate to most. Geoffrey Borny as the headmaster is an oily figure, almost entirely concerned with his own professional agenda, but ... again, he isn't entirely wrong when he confronts Hector with the ways Hector hasn't .

As for the boys, they retain every element of an unruly class of late-teenage hormones, rebellion and eagerness, as a strong ensemble, whether debating seriously the issues presented to them or goofing about, or somewhere between the two. As individuals, Patrick Galen-Mules as the experimentally-religious Scripps, Pat Mandziy as the hyperconfident and mildly manipulative Dakin and Henry Strand as the yearning, slightly isolated Posner get the lions share of the plot, with the remainder having to grab moments. Lucas Frank gets the lions share of the best moments, as Rudge, the figure who doesn't quite fit in with the comfortable middle-classness of the rest of the group, but Cole Hilder, Jack Tinga, Andrew McMillan and Andrew Brigetti all make characters who are more than just "and the rest of the boys".

This is essential, whether to see a great play in a tight, intimate production or to see what the next generation of CAnberra's leading men will look like (bloody brilliant, is what it looks like). So yes, you should grab a ticket while you can.