As one of the nation's favourite plays, any adaptation of Alan Bennett's The History Boys has a lot to live up to before the unique resonance of its play to a Cambridge audience is even considered. However, although strong in places, this production is ultimately lacking in polish.
The play itself is well staged within its performance space. The space is utilised to good effect, and though naturally very sedentary in nature, the classroom setup works well, especially where the cast work to create a realistic school environment, complete with note-passing. The creation of two distinct areas onstage is also effective, which allows for easy movement between classroom and staffroom or office, and leads to the silent continuation of the class and meetings in the background of other scenes to good effect. The staging here is perhaps most useful during Posner's discussion of his sexuality with Irwin, enabling Irwin's discussions with both Posner and Mrs Lintott to take place within clearly separate settings, without a sense that either setting was being forced.
In a play featuring only one named female character with a speaking part, it is interesting that director Gaia Fay Lambert chose to cast her characters gender blind. This makes little difference at times – Lottie Tucker, for example, injects a good amount of character into her role – but makes for added humour during the boys' French lesson, which in itself is a largely well-performed scene.
There were some good performances from the cast. Quintin Langley-Coleman brings the character of Irwin to life successfully, not least in his depiction of Irwin's discomfort when he interacts with Dakin late in the play. Jasmine Rees shines as chirpy, outspoken Timms, and Stanley Thomas is expressive as Posner. The strong classroom interactions onstage give way to an emotional finish by the whole cast, though this is somewhat hampered and squashed by the confines of a set which could have been moved to accommodate the arrangement of the final scene.
Granted, a combination of first night nerves and a mere three weeks to rehearse might excuse the odd slip, but a considerable number of cues were either taken too early or missed. With more rehearsal time, these issues might have been ironed out, but timing on the whole was something of an issue; many members of the cast resorted to parroting their lines at times, occasionally losing comic impact in the process. Robin McFarland's Hector is especially guilty of this, sometimes missing the requisite emotion his character demanded in the process, but he can be credited with making a far more consistent attempt at a broad Yorkshire accent than the rest of the cast. Some performances would have benefitted from a greater amount of emotion and expression, though this would likely have come with more time to rehearse. Overall, a remarkable performance given the time constraints the cast and crew were under, if somewhat rough around the edges.