The History Boys, by Alan Bennett, debuted in London in May 2004, and opened on Broadway in April 2006. It closed a short time later, probably due to the play being so befuddlingly British that it simply didn’t resonate with American audiences. It is therefore undeniably odd that this show was LTN’s Patrons’ Choice, considering that all most people probably know about it is that the late Richard Griffiths (Vernon Dursley from the Harry Potter movies) starred in the film adaptation, also released in 2006.
The plot concerns a class of advanced placement students at an all-boys British… prep school (I guess?) and their eccentric but… (kinda) beloved (I guess?) teacher, who eventually gets into a temporary spot of mild trouble owing to his propensity for fondling at least one his students’ crotches. Whilst riding a motorbike. This show is ostensibly a drama, by the way. A guy dies at the end, and another guy gets paralyzed. In a motorbike accident. Presumably whilst crotches were being fondled. I am not making ANY of that up. It’s not a good script, is what I’m trying to convey. The ease and passivity with which the teacher in question is slapped on the wrist when the above accusations come to light defies credulity, as does the playwright’s anachronistic portrayal of teenaged homosexual experimentation. As a straight guy myself, I may be talking out of turn here, but despite the fact that the play was written in the twenty-first century, Mr. Bennett seems to have one eighties-ass understanding of homosexuality.
The shortcomings of the text could have been overcome by masterful and visionary direction, but that’s a dangerously thin limb for a playwright to put himself out on, and the results of LTN’s treatment are uncommonly disappointing. The History Boys wasn’t just badly directed; for all intents and purposes it WASN’T directed. There is one fleeting glimmer of artistic ingenuity near the top of the show when the boys ceremoniously remove their teacher’s motorcycle regalia from his body, but thereafter the staging is unimaginative at best, and the pacing throughout is like the creeping decrepitude of old age. As I mentioned before, the first act is an hour and a half long, during which time I had difficultly even keeping my attention focused on the stage, so brutally tedious is the delivery of this impenetrably unrelatable play.
By contrast, the performances are mostly good, considering every choice the actors made appears to have been made in an artistic vacuum, without support or guidance. It’s a real shame, because there is a great deal of raw talent onstage in The History Boys, particularly amongst the titular boys themselves, and I’ve no doubt that each member of the cast will deliver strong, nuanced, and entertaining performances in future productions. But here, in the absence of any evident directorial guidance, what we get are mostly big slabs of uncommitted over-acting. Emotional outbursts explode out of nowhere, and the actors seem every bit as uncomfortable with them as the audience. Character choices are either nebulous and hesitant or are ill-advised and cartoonishly over the top. Intentions and subtexts are completely glossed over, or else telegraphed to such an extent that Samuel Morse himself would blush. There is no unified vision to this play; there is no DIRECTION. It does not appear as if any table work was done, as if there was any discussion among the actors and director of the text and its meaning. As a result, it’s painfully obvious that most of the time the cast haven’t a clue what they’re saying. Opening night was like watching middle-schoolers do Shakespeare, with the heartiest (oftentimes the only) laughs issuing from the row in which the director was seated.
With regard to technical aspects, to the show’s credit it aims low and doesn’t fall short by much. The scenic design is simple and elegant. The pupils’ classroom desks, which were custom built for the show, are streamlined, attractive, and make the half of the stage they occupy a subtly serviceable success. The other half of the stage however is just a bunch of crap they found and put out there ‘cause they needed one of these and one of those and oh look here’s one right here let’s use it. The overall effect looks unfinished. The costume design (uncredited) is likewise serviceable and thoroughly meets expectations – aside from the wrinkled and mismatched robes in the very first scene. (I know it seems nitpicky to point a thing like that out, and I wouldn’t have bothered to had these costumes appeared anywhere other than downstage center at the very top of the show.) The sound design (also uncredited) is good, consisting of period British pop music of which one can easily imagine at least a few of the boys would have had cassettes in their rooms. The lighting design, like the scenic design, is simple and straightforward, and is probably the most competently executed aspect of the production. BA Ciccolella is credited with the design, with Nina Martin and Bill Armstrong listed as Assistant Lighting Designers. A little bird told me the artistic decisions were pretty much evenly distributed among the three of them, and I think Ms. Martin and Mr. Armstrong show definite potential.
There was no run crew listed in the program at all, so I guess those ubiquitous theatre ghosts you always hear about were the ones operating the flyrail and light board. They did really well, especially considering they’re dead.
These things aren’t enough to make The History Boys even a moderate artistic success though, because the production is worse than ineptly executed, it’s lazy. Even the ancillary functions of the theatre are bumbled. Here are a few pieces of advice:
Before you announce that one of your cast members will be on book, watch his performance one last time and assess whether anyone will actually be able to tell. (I wouldn’t have been able to.)
Don’t open the curtain in a black-out. We can hear it, we know it’s happening. Let us see it.
Don’t bring the house lights down before everyone is seated. That’s dangerous.
Once the show is over and people are getting out of their seats and heading for the exits, DO bring the house lights up.
These are the kind of things that take one hour-long rehearsal to iron out. Christ. Which of us went to college again?
I am aware that this review is quite harsh, and I feel it is deservedly so. I try always to keep in mind that it is necessary when critiquing community theatre to maintain a sense of proportion. After all, almost everyone involved in non-professional theatre – myself included – is at one stage or another in the process of learning about the art form. Some are more advanced than others. It would therefore be unfair to lambaste a show directed by someone with relatively little experience. But, as it was produced under the auspices of a director who earned a college degree in theatre ten or more years ago and has been steadily directing ever since, The History Boys is straight up bush league bullshit. It’s the kind of lazy show our professional theatres point to when pressed for an answer as to why they don’t deign to collaborate with our community theatres, and is thus the kind of show that in its own small way ultimately hinders the growth and development of Hampton Roads’ theatrical community.
Bullshit. Lazy, lazy bullshit.
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