JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE HISTORY BOYS at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, and THE KING’S SPEECH at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 21.3.14. _____________________________________________________
The History Boys 4 stars ****
The King’s Speech 4 stars ****
STANDS BRITAIN where it did? Obviously not; in this election year, the very idea of Britishness is being questioned with a rare intensity. This week in Scotland, though, there’s a chance to see two big plays of recent years that at least encourage us to reflect on deep questions about the culture and history of the state we live in.
Staged this time round by ambitious young touring company Sell A Door, Alan Bennett’s fine 2004 play The History Boys is set in a single classrooom in a Sheffield boys’ grammar school during the 1980’s. The central character is Hector, a 60-year-old English teacher whose methods are unconventional in more ways than one. He not only teaches the boys whatever comes into his well-furnished head, with a blithe disregard for exams; he also likes to get a little too close to his pupils, particularly on the pillion of his elderly motorbike.
There’s always something slightly-too-idealised about Bennett’s portrayal of these boys, a dazzlingly bright bunch who understand Hector’s weakness, and simply forgive it. Yet Kate Saxon’s vivid production – with an excellent cast of 12, led by a Richard Hope as Hector – does full justice to the play; and to the sheer elegiac power of Bennett’s portrayal of a civilisation whose ability to transmit its best thoughts is finally threatened by its own hidden history of sexual unhappiness, dishonesty, and abuse.
The King’s Speech, by contrast – already famous from the 2010 film – is an idealised constitutional romance of a tale, in which an ailing monarchy, with a feckless heir about to abdicate, a growing threat of Nazism in Europe, and a bullying king who has reduced his younger son to a stammering wreck, somehow rediscovers its strength and destiny through a revived connection with the people, represented by the growing unlikely friendship between the stammering new king, George, and irreverent Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue.
If the play presents a romantic view of a key moment in British history, though, it does it with plenty of irreverent wit, sharp observation and well-founded historical research; and Roxana Silbert’s graceful, beautifully-choreographed touring production highlights all of these brisk, satirical qualities in the play. Raymond Coulthard is grumpy but poignant as Bertie, Jason Donovan utterly delightful as the shabby, irrepressible Logue; and you can catch the play in Edinburgh in May, as it continues its UK tour.
Final performances today. The King’s Speech also at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, 18-23 May.