ORLANDO — Irwin, a teacher at a boys’ grammar school in the north of England, initially comes onto the stage in a wheelchair – though for most of Alan Bennett’s play “The History Boys,” he has full use of his legs.
So it makes perfect sense, then, that Irwin is a young history teacher, and works alongside his mentor, Hector, an older, seasoned and decidedly less straight-laced and more eccentric teacher. During the play, Hector and Irwin take the audience back in history – to the series of events that led to tragedy for both of them. It’s a bit like the subject they teach: history is partly about the facts in those school text books, faithfully recorded at the time of all those momentous actions of past decades; but it’s also about memory, which of course is a far more subjective way of reflecting back.
For Hector, his popularity with his students, his fine reputation, and the respect he gains from his colleagues, does not stop him from tumbling into a scandal that threatens his entire career – one that has the enraged headmaster urging Hector to resign so the scandal doesn’t have to go public through a high profile firing.
So that leaves the question: how did Hector’s scandal eventually leave Irwin in a wheelchair?
A brief description of Bennett’s 2004 play makes it sound stuffy and dry – which is about the last two words to describe it, or at least the production now being mounted at the Mad Cow Theatre in Orlando. Between the sharp, witty and vulnerable performances by Peter Travis as Irwin and Philip Nolen as Hector, and the energetic direction by Mark Edward Smith, “The History Boys” is clever, funny and rarely predictable.
Bennett set the play in Cutlers’ Grammar School in Sheffield during the 1980s, as a group of history pupils prepare for the grueling entrance examinations that could help get them into Oxford and Cambridge.
Hector is a popular figure with his students, one who enjoys knowledge for its own sake, and he’s nothing if not a maverick – so much so, that the headmaster decides to bring on his Irwin in the hope of introducing a more rigorous and traditional form of teaching to the school.
And then there are the boys – an unruly bunch, for sure, but also quite intelligent. They also have the same obsession virtually all teenage boys grapple with: sex. That’s particularly true for Dakin, a handsome young student who thinks nonstop about his sexual pursuit of one particular girl.
And yet it’s worth noting that with the exception of fellow history teacher Mrs. Lintott, there are no girls in this show. So when a sexual scandal breaks out involving Hector – who was seen fondling a boy during a motorcycle ride – all hell breaks loose.
But there is far more to the story than just an embarrassing scandal for the headmaster to brush under the rug.
“The History Boys” is a real delight that works on so many levels, including the wonderfully witty dialogue that contrasts a British boys’ school’s stiff-upper-lip attitudes with the sexual interests of those boys and their raging hormones. This is particularly true for Dakin, who not only targets the girls but isn’t above recognizing that gay men find him attractive, and how that gives him a certain power and advantage that he can exploit.
At the same time, that clashes with the race to fully prepare those boys for the best academic tradition possible, and for the school to be able to boast that their students have gone on to the most prestigious universities in England. That contrasts in two of the play’s best scenes: one where Hector teaches the French language to his boys by having them act out a scene set, hilariously, in a French brothel; and Irwin’s decision to take a very different approach and discuss the Holocaust as a history subject.
Travis and Nolen do a superb job in their roles, although so does Robin Praett Olson as the more down to Earth Mrs. Lintott – who isn’t afraid of speaking her mind – and Robert Johnston as Dakin. Far from being cerebral or academic, “The History Boys” brilliantly juggles so many themes – finding the adult in the promising student, and the challenges in the entire teaching system — this is a smart play that never fails to charm us.
“The History Boys” plays for one more week, through Sunday, Sept. 7, at the Mad Cow Theatre at 54 W. Church St. Shows start at 7:30 p.m., with a 2:30 p.m. matinee today.
Tickets start at $28.25, although all tickets on Monday, Sept. 1 are just $15 online or at the door. Call 407-247-8898 for reservations.
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