Heather Mitchell and John Wood in The History Boys | The Playhouse

Peach Theatre Company’s production of British comic playwright Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, currently playing in The Playhouse at the Sydney Opera House is bound to be a hit. In fact, I’d be very surprised if it isn’t completely sold out, or very nearly so, already. But without being elitist about it, the most popular theatre ain’t necessarily the best.

Bennett’s play first saw light of day about eight years ago, yet somehow seems so much older. It taps into a vernacular, I think, with which Bennett is more au fait and comfortable and, in tackling the sometimes hollow (if hallowed) virtues of education, I think he harks back to his own formative, adolescent experience. Perhaps it ought to be called “Alan Bennett’s School of Days”.

The piece has won a swag of prestigious awards and one can’t help but admire Bennett, historically, for his seminal written and performative contributions to Beyond The Fringe, alongside the likes of rascals Jonathon Miller, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. But despite robust writing, well-drawn characters and a thesis, or at least sentiment, with which I’ve much truck, I’m not sure this is as great a play as convention would argue. Neither do I necessarily believe director Jesse Peach has eked the most out of it, notwithstanding some quite luminous moments and performances. It doesn’t exactly leap off the stage.

The problems begin at the beginning, with fundamental directorial decisions. Yes, it’s an English play. Written by an Englishman. Set in a fictional boys’ grammar school in the north. Early 1980s. But for mine, it could’ve easily translated, with minimal adaptation, Down Under. And have held more intrinsic interest as a result. As it was, John Wood, the major marketing drawcard of the show, had trouble nailing any kind of British brogue. So, why bother? Well, yes, there is a problem. We don’t have any universities that match the relative prestige of Oxbridge. But I don’t think even this is insurmountable.

Emily O’Hara’s stage design was OK; nothing jumped out as particularly fresh or original. Countless curled sheets of paper affixed in a swathe at the front of the stage is obviously relative to the subject matter, but its arrangement, while pleasing enough, doesn’t exactly induce cardiac arrest.

I’ve a lot of time and regard for Heather Mitchell, but I’m not sure she’s any more brilliantly cast, as the dry, plain-speaking (in fact, whip-tongued) Mrs Lintott, than Wood as (Douglas) Hector. Paul Goddard, though, as the headmaster, is a more inspired selection. In his nondescript suit and glasses, he’s a comical archetype: despite his rather old-school (not almost other-worldly, unless principals still dress like this) appearance, his mindset is that of a corporate executive, a cold-hearted utilitarian; concerned, above all, with the image and status of the institution. Goddard doesn’t discover anything especially likeable in his character. Probably because there’s very little, if anything, redeeming in him. The headmaster, it seems, couldn’t really care less if anybody likes him (although, in the end, a note of compassion does sound here and there). The distance between he and his staff is measured by the tendency of his staff to address him by his position, rather than by his name, Felix Armstrong.

Intriguingly, it’s the fresher faces in the cast that really distinguish themselves. A prime example, James Mackay (who actually went to grammar school), as Irwin, the young relief reached charged with the task of getting a group of students to Oxbridge. Advised by the headmaster to grow a moustache, he compensates for his proximity in age to the students with bluster. Gradually, we become aware of his sexual preference, as well as a rather less cocksure side to his nature. Mackay calibrates the role with finesse. Caleb Alloway is forthright as the opinionated Lockwood.

Simon Brook McLachlan, a pupil who dabbles in acting, cuts a rakish figure. Gary Brun, as football hero, Rudge, does an especially fine job of it, communicating his character as self-aware (if not downright self-deprecating), “realistic” about his prospects and, of course, he has one of the best lines in the play and, arguably, in all English literature: ‘history is just one fucking thing after another’; he may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but he has street smarts, as he proves to one and all. Matt Hardie is a standout, too, as the cheeky Timms.

Matthew Backer has a starring role as Posner, a boy more affected by Barbara Streisand than The Sex Pistols; prone to bursting into song and desperately seeking Dakin, played to charismatic perfection by Lindsay Farris. Dakin (sexually ambivalent and pumping Felix’ personal assistant for information), in turn, develops a fascination for Tom (Irwin) and makes assertive moves towards him. James Elliott is Akthar, the token Muslim Bennett has seen fit to include, perhaps as a sideways glance to multicultural realities of modern Britain, but he doesn’t seem to really exploit any potential to discuss rampant anti-Islamic prejudice. Aaron Tsindos rounds out this excellent group, playing Scripps. All of these actors appear to have been very responsive to Danielle Roffe’s accent coaching, so why does Wood fall off the wagon?

For any culture vulture, of course, Bennett serves up a veritable feast of literary, musical and linguistic references and excerpts; from Wittgenstein to Woolf; Whitman to Wilde. And that’s just the Ws. And he has plenty to say and interrogate. What constitutes education? What is its value? How much should it, or can it be about fostering a lust for knowledge and understanding, as against sheer vocational pragmatism? History is written by the victors, he reminds us. There is much good writing. Of his own. And other people’s.

But while Wood, playing the passionate lover of all things literate, touches the sides of Hector’s fervour, he isn’t entirely convincing, no matter how likeable, otherwise. His casting is doubtless a canny commercial decision, but not a particularly classy dramatic one. As a result, this production, whatever misgivings pertain to the play itself (which seems almost substantially out-of-step with the times in which it’s supposedly set and affords too much licence for Bennett to pontificate), never really gets complete traction, let alone lift-off.

While it may have something more to subtle to offer on the subject of burgeoning sexuality (and in a refreshingly non-partisan way), in the end, one can’t help but feel it’s just a Pommy version of Dead Poet’s Society. Go ahead. Make my day. Howl me down!

The details: The History Boys is at The Playhouse, Sydney Opera House until March 2. Tickets on the venue website.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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