REVIEW: The History Boys a class apart at Pendley

The Court Theatre delights audiences with Alan Bennett's thrilling comedy.

IT was quite a coup for the Frayed Knot Theatre Company to get the rights to be the first amateur group in the country to stage Alan Bennett's award winning The History Boys.

And if Mr B himself had been sitting in the audience for the first night at The Court Theatre, Pendley, he would have handed out gold stars all round for a truly class act.

The boys in this production are all local and most regulars on the am-dram scene – but they pulled off a remarkable performance that wouldn't have been out of place in a professional show.

The History Boys is a particularly tough play to learn. Running at more than two-and-a-half hours it's packed with learned dialogue and leaves little time for coasting.

Set in the classroom of a Sheffield grammar school the lads spend their time quoting from Houseman, Auden, Owen, Larkin and Sassoon, all favourites of the writer.

There's also the question of learning some dialogue in French. This is no walk in the park for aspiring young actors, but an education in dramatic excellence.

The eight lads, led by a confident Matt Bowles, as class-leader Dakin, and James East as Scripps, never falter as they present a group of ebullient teenagers bidding for scholarships to Oxbridge.

The headmaster, himself a geographer who graduated from Hull, is an ambitious snob who wants his star pupils to be tutored into winning places at Oxford or Cambridge.

It would be a first for the school and would help in those all-important league tables.

Until now the biggest influence in their short lives has been Hector, their flamboyant English teacher, who instils a love of culture on his young charges as well as proffering a grope of the lads when he gives them rides home on his motor bike.

The headmaster brings in a spin doctor. Where Hector is a rebel wanting to produce rounded boys equipped for life, the flash Irwin is only interested in getting results – even if that means employing dubious and contentious revision methods.

Dakin and Scripps chat about poetry and religion in their breaks. They debate over whether the young Irwin is meretricious or disingenuous and decide on the former.

I have reservations with Bennett's rose-tinted view of classroom life. Perhaps 1980s grammar boys would use words like meretricious and talk to each other about poetry but today's lads would probably be discussing the latest episode of Skins or last night's match.

The battle over the boys' future happiness and success makes for some bitter-sweet dialogue that is, at times, both incredibly funny and profound.

One of the biggest laughs comes when Dakin and his friends act out a scene in a French brothel during a lesson with Hector to learn the subjunctive.

Conducted almost entirely in French is doesn't take sub-titles to follow the antics of gay student Posner acting as a Madam, the trouser-less Dakin pretending to be the punter, and Scripps as the prostitute.

When the headmaster walks in with Irwin the scene rapidly turns into a farce that brings tears to your eyes.

The boys deserve individual praise for their work on this lively and enjoyable production.

Matt Bowles, looking like a young Marc Warren, looks comfortable as the cheeky chance-taker, Dakin, who is wooing the head's secretary, Fiona.

He tells the troops in class about his efforts to "go all the way" using Britain's advances on the Western Front as a fitting and hysterical metaphor.

Michael Roebuck's taciturn Rudge saves the best until last, saying little throughout until the denouement when the teenager reveals that he's not as thick as he looks.

Joe Payne as Timms seemed perennially jovial and the class clown who uses his talent at the piano to accompany the few musical interludes in the show.

James East's Scripps has found God and chastity as an angle to success. Unsurprising he ends up as a journalist. He acts as part-time narrator (and scene-shifter) throughout but his was a stand-out performance both as story-teller and performer.

Eamonn Borg-Neal (Lockwood) and Alan Kerr (Crowther) had little to do but make up the numbers while the young Sid Sagar deserved more dialogue as the cheerful Akhtar.

"You've very young, sir," he says to Irwin. "This isn't your gap year is it sir?"

Andy Crisp had one of the hardest jobs playing Posner, a boy who

describes himself as gay, fat and from Sheffield. "I'm ****ed," he wails.

He looked older than the other actors playing 18-year-olds but he worked hard to make Posner effete but not a stereotype or clichd.

And what of the teachers ? They fared less well than their pupils. Dave Barratt's Hector and Eileen Reece as history teacher Dorothy Linttot both appeared to suffer from first night nerves and lacked confidence in their roles.

Hector is very much a larger than life character whose love of literature and charisma enthrals his boys. Barratt had the build but needed to find the powerful personality to match.

Kevyn Connett had mastered the slickness of the superficial Irwin while Richard Ward's headmaster was so realistic I imagined him giving lines to any other actor who forgot their words!

It was a tremendous production from a talented cast and credit must go to director Dan Clucas for having the courage to tackle such an ambitious but hugely rewarding drama.

The History Boys runs until Saturday (April 25). For tickets contact the box office 01442 823130 or go online www.courttheatre.co.uk