The King’s Theatre’s production of The History Boys is full of quotes. The staff and student body of Bennett’s Sheffield high school reel off vast swathes of the English canon in Kate Saxon’s production at the King’s Theatre. But so too is Bennett’s dialogue; it has become quotable, as the audience on Tuesday night’s production reminded us. Anticipating Rudge’s (in)famous response to the meaning of history, the audience joined in: “It’s just one f*cking thing after another”. This is to be expected. It is ‘the nation’s favourite play’, as the programme is keen to remind us, and the production is classic re-telling, which goes some way towards encouraging this unscripted audience participation.
Saxon’s interpretation is traditional. It plays it safe. The set channels school days with a touch of nostalgia; the stage wall is covered in posters, the classroom chairs look reassuringly uncomfortable, scraping along the stage floor with a satisfying screech. Filled with 80s hits, the soundtrack is replete with crowd-pleasers: “Tainted Love”, “You Spin Me Round”. This new performance certainly sticks close to Bennett’s original script, but sometimes it feels a little too much like the much-celebrated original 2004 production, which was later made into the wildly popular 2006 film adaptation. The first half in particular hardly strays from the original – a disappointing artistic decision considering the number of people in the audience who had evidently seen the play before.
Choosing to replicate another production will inevitably induce comparison, and some of the portrayals in Saxon’s version fall a little short. While The History Boys is never intended to be played naturalistically, Hector (Richard Hope) doesn’t bring quite enough of the sorrow that the script requires.
By the second half, however, the production takes on some of its own personality. The framing narrative in which Irwin (Mark Field) appears post-motorcycle crash is particularly originally staged, and so too is the final scene. The neon signs which light up periodically, declaring: “you are here” and “hold on tight”, alongside the motorcycle that hovers over the stage, are distinctive touches to the production. The latter is a particularly smart inclusion, never allowing the audience to forget the play’s inevitable conclusion, hanging over the scenes like a bad omen. It feels that Saxon works with the play’s fame here; everyone in the audience surely knows the conclusion, so the clever prop acquires symbolic value over the course of the performance.
This new production of The History Boys does again what it has done before: it pleases its audience. And that’s no bad thing, as ‘the nations favourite play’ it is inevitable, even obligatory for the production to stick keenly to the original. Yet, there is a fine line between a well-made classic and a copycat production, and this adaptation falls somewhere inbetween. If only Saxon had been a little bolder.
The show, rather, tends a little too much towards the production of The History Boys that we all quote and love.
Photograph: Matt Martin Photography