Anyone who knows me or reads this column often will know that I’m obsessed with The History Boys, and have seen it more often than a person decently ought to (initially, thanks to the wonderful £10 Travelex season at the National Theatre, which made theatre-going practicable). No, I’m not going to say how many times, but I’ve been fortunate to see every permutation of the casting except for one! And yes, I probably do know the text as well as the actors (if one falls ill, I’m ready to jump onto the stage and stand in!).
As a result, when I do see it again (not if, you note, when), I’m always asked whether I don’t find it boring because I know what happens. But the charm of the play, and its enduring appeal, is that it takes on very different characteristics with each new cast. The tone changes, and the balance of the characters differs depending on the actors. The last version, with Stephen Moore, gave the bounce of the original a more contemplative, melancholy spin. And now the newest cast and version at the Wyndham’s Theatre, led by Demond Barrit as Hector, have managed to find new life and fun in the play and really engage with the audience.
Mr Barrit’s Hector is, in many ways, a lot less showy than that of Richard Griffiths, but this makes Hector’s downfall all the more affecting. I first saw him play the role at the National with the ‘second’ cast (I’d dearly loved to have seen him in his brief run with the original boys) and, for me, he’s the best all of the Hectors so far, instantly recognisable from all our pasts as the beloved teacher, his joy with the boys as clearly evident as his later distress (in an extremely touching scene with Daniel Fine as Posner, where they both can’t connect with the world and each other, they brought me to tears).
One of the chief delights of the play’s success is that it has been an excellent training ground for young actors, and many of them have gone on to great things. Of the original boys, for example, Dominic Cooper will consolidate his acclaim in the BBC’s blockbuster Sense and Sensibility at Christmas with a diverse raft of films in 2008, including The Escapist (gritty but wonderful), The Duchess and Mamma Mia!; James Corden has been experiencing award-winning success with Gavin and Stacey, co-written with Ruth Jones, which will have a second series this year; Russell Tovey has mixed stage (he’s currently in The Sea at the Haymarket) and TV success (he was seen this week on BBC3 in Being Human); and Jamie Parker has just finished Valkyrie with Tom Cruise. Two of the subsequent Dakins are in high demand – Jamie King went to Hollywood and appeared in The Tudors; Ben Barnes was headhunted out of the play to play the title role in Prince Caspian as well as appearing in Stardust and starring in the forthcoming Easy Virtue.
For many of the young actors in all versions of the play, it’s been their first professional role – and they’ve all taken on the challenge and grown in confidence. In the current cast, Andrew Hawley took on the role of Dakin at short notice when Ben Barnes left before he’d even finished theatre school, and he’s returned to the role with even greater assurance. His is a very physical performance, and he makes excellent use of the space on stage, especially in one scene where he virtually stalks a nervous Irwin. Also putting in assured debut performances are Thomas Howes (delightfully earnest as Scripps), Ryan Hawley (as Rudge) and Danny Kirrane (an irrepressibly naughty Timms). It’s also great to see the cast working as an ensemble and clearly delighting in each other’s company.
David Mallinson makes a finely exasperated headmaster and Elizabeth Bell a warm Mrs Lintott. And Tim Delap brings out Irwin’s vulnerability and uncertainty well.
If you’ve never seen the play, go along to the Wyndham’s now – you’ll be guaranteed almost three hours of laughs and entertainment. And if you have already seen it, go again anyway – these boys are really at the top of their game.
Look out for an interview with Mr Barrit next week, where I’ll find out how he feels about the play and what made him come back to the role of Hector.
The History Boys is at the Wyndham’s Theatre WC2 and is booking to April 26 (0844 482 5120)
Picture credit: Manuel Harlan