All students at some point in their education has had a teacher who changed their outlook on life. Perhaps there was one teacher who demonstrated life lessons not found strictly in textbooks or in studying for exams.
“The History Boys” brings to life such an instructor who fought for his students to retain integrity and stressed less the importance of college entrance exams.
The play, which opened at the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown Los Angeles on Nov. 7, creates a structured environment in which its characters are free to express their inner thoughts.
The audience is provided with insight into all of the characters; it is as if they have received an invitation into the reasons for each one’s behaviors and actions.
Set in 1980s England, “History Boys” transports the audience to an all-boys high school where students are trying to pass an exam to get into Oxford or Cambridge – the most highly desired options, despite the boy’s unlikelihood of being accepted at either one.
They are faced with one eccentric teacher, Hector, who could care less about any form of organization or conformity and his younger polar opposite, Irwin.
Irwin convinces the boys that he can get them ready for their exams, and with hard work will ensure they get into the prestigious college of their choice.
The school’s headmaster is stodgy and cares only for academic improvement measurable by exam scores.
The boys’ former history teacher, Mrs. Lintott, tries to bring about harmony among the teaching staff to no avail.
While looking for guidance the boys are instead confronted with teachers with completely different ideals.
Hector praises silliness in the classroom and a love of poetry. Irwin focuses strictly on what the boys will need to memorize and regurgitate for the exams.
The play at first glance would seem boring; there are no sex scenes or violence.
Rather this play is an example of fine writing (by Alan Bennett) and innovative set design.
The production incorporates 80s music in pre-recorded scenes that take place throughout to exhibit action that takes place outside of the classroom walls.
The set changes and added songs help the play move along with its timing, so that no scene feels drawn out.
Perhaps the only disappointing aspect of the play is the dialogue. While the mostly all-American cast convincingly pulls off British accents, there are many moments when the audience has to strain to understand the actors.
Bennett is much too exquisite a playwright for his words to not all be fully enunciated.
Many of the teenagers in “History Boys” stand out as exceptional actors. Their energy onstage is part of the reason the show maintains its soul throughout the production.
One of the most entertaining actors to watch is Alex Brightman, who plays a young man questioning his sexuality.
His lines most often stand out as the funny parts in scenes that might have otherwise been unremarkable.
While all of the actors provide their own stories, it is Brightman’s performance that adds depth and heart to the boys’ stories.
However the play truly belongs to Dakin Matthews, who plays the inveterate, unconventional Hector.
The actor has a prolific history working on stage and screen, but this will probably be his finest role as a man who refuses to let age or experience diminish his love of life and literature.
Matthews grounds the show with his impressive monologues and asides to the audience.
The play will continue to run until Dec. 9.
Everyone deserves a chance to remember what difference educators can make in the lives of their students, especially the unconventional ones who show that learning is more about discovering your true self than memorizing information.
“History Boys” demonstrates that it is not necessarily the lectures one receives in school that will change the course of the future: it is the people met along the way that make all the difference.
“The History Boys” runs through Dec. 9.
Erin Konrad can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.