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Wednesday 14 April 2010

Review: The History Boys at the Maidment Theatre

Posted in: Performance
By Matt Akersten - 12th October 2009


The first thing you notice when you enter the Maidment Theatre is The History Boys sumptuous set - huge bookshelves teeming with old volumes. It's the perfect way to introduce a thought-provoking story of education, adolescence, history and preparation for life.

If you're a fan of the film, this is the first chance for Aucklanders to see the play it came from. Written by gay writer Alan Bennett only a handful of years ago, we meet a classroom of high school boys preparing for the antiquated British exam system. Their teachers are striving to get them into the best Universities, but along the way, they must come to understand more than just what's in the exams - they must attain that extra something that'll wow the decision-makers at the top schools they hope to get into. The rest of their lives are at stake!

Big arms: Harry McNaughton as Dakin
The cast, led by George Henare, Annie Whittle and Bruce Phillips as the school's senior staff, feature many young actors who do well with the wordy script. Singling out anyone is a little unfair as they are all good, but Harry McNaughton (taking a short break from being Gerald on Shorty St) is attention-grabbing as Dakin. He has big arms and knows how to use them, raising them behind his head to entice others in his key scenes. His school uniform sleeves were straining under the pressure and could give out at any moment.

Todd Emerson has been on stage a lot recently in various new shows (Cindy & Eric Go To Hell, The Reindeer Monologues, The Mall, LUV) but he particularly shines here is it's a chance to showcase his piano-playing skills. And your heart will bleed for Elliot Christensen-Yule (he was the student with Tourette's Syndrome on Shorty St) as the youngest and gayest boy Posner, when he sings his songs and lusts after Dakin.

George Henare is great as the mischievous teacher Hector, who's an amazing mentor and inspiration to his students. His clumsy 'fondling' of the boys is his downfall, but like with the film version, Hector is so lovable that you never think of him as just "that dirty old man". We're encouraged not to think of his students as 'victims' either - they're in charge.

The History Boys is Peach Theatre Company director Jesse Peach's first true professional and high-profile production - he's done lots of community theatre in the past - and his crew are very new (as the set designer notes in the programme: "This is my first set design, and I don't know the rules") but there's no sign of amateurishness here - it all hangs together well without any clunkers.

It's worth picking up the show's programme, in which you'll see what a lovely time the cast have had spending the day with poet Sam Hunt, and dining with sponsor James Wallace. I'm jealous!

The History Boys is on stage at Auckland's Maidment Theatre until Saturday 24 October. Booking details and further info is here.

Matt Akersten - 12th October 2009

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