Nearly twenty years ago, Nicholas Hytner directed a play about the sexual and political awakening of a group of public schoolboys, about the formative influence of an unconventional teacher and about clashes of ideology. Now heís back in the same territory. Thatís not in any way to accuse Alan Bennettís The History Boys of being influenced by Robin Glendinningís Mobil award-winner Mumbo Jumbo (1987 p617); although informed by similarly intelligent and spirited liberalism, Bennettís play about Thatcherism in a Sheffield grammar and Glendinningís about Loyalism in a Belfast one are chalk and cheese. Itís just the kind of curiosity I like to remark on, not least because Robin himself was the unconventional teacher who kindled my own interest in theatre. (The main juvenile role in Mumbo Jumbo, by the way, was played by a young Michael Grandage. Howís that for spotting talent early?)
In reviews of The History Boys as in so many other instances, Nicholas de Jongh stands out as the contrarian. Pretty much everything he says about Bennettís piece is incontestable. Itís a chronological muddle: Eighties schoolboys with encyclopaedic knowledge of Fifties camp, and indeed a mistaken sense of the Eighties themselves as a single phase in educational history Ė the scene-setting snatches of period pop music specify the first half of the decade, whereas it was really only in the second half that Thatcher and her minions began to turn the educational sector into a field for pre-commercial training rather than actual learning. Bennett is too concerned with enacting his views on education and culture in general to be that bothered about rooting them in a specific world. The result is that the school becomes a kind of Neverland, and the events depicted less a microcosmic manifestation of a broad social and political shift than a fable about it. Few other reviewers have dared to point out as much, as if fearful that to do so would be to damage the play irreparably.
Because hereís the thing: it doesnít. The power both of the play and of the argument it advances shine through all the woolliness and inconsistencies. So the new history teacher Irwin is a compendium of bogeys, standing at various points in the timeline for Thatcherite educationalism and the blight of glib media historians and the ideological perversion of policy wonks (with, as it happens, a Blairite flavour). So the blithe acceptance of a certain amount of homosexual fumbling is likewise at best a quaint throwback (when, if at all, will we see a revival of Roger Gellertís underrated schoolboy-affair play Quaint Honour?) and at worst a heresy in this climate of hysterical witch-hunting. So Frances de la Tourís character is included almost as an afterthought, the token woman who owes her status as universal confidant not to her sex but to her sexlessness. One can painstakingly catalogue the blemishes on the bark of every individual tree and miss the soaring majesty of the forest as a whole. The History Boys is a creation of both beauty and potency. It makes important points with both intellectual and emotional passion.
Itís easy, also, to dismiss this kind of adulation as the apologism of reviewers who sprang from the same culture themselves and are keen to subscribe to its being thus mythologised. But this is Nick Hytnerís National Theatre... and while Hytner the ex-Manchester Grammar School boy no doubt relished the use of a snippet of The Smithsí song "The Headmaster Ritual", cutting off just before the opening couplet ďBelligerent ghouls/Run Manchester schoolsĒ, Hytner the artistic directorís tenure on the South Bank has shown that his own concerns and interests bear little or no relation to this fictitious England, keen as he is to grapple with altogether more immediate issues as regards the Nationalís place in the nationís culture. The History Boys isnít set in the real world, but it speaks to it and works within it, marvellously. The well-made play is as often as not a pale, bloodless creature; this, on the other hand, is spotty, with raging hormones and that irresistible combination of restless inquisitiveness and utter certainty. In his seventieth year, Bennett has written a nigh-perfect teenage play.
The flimsiest of hooks
Another example of a project worth watching despite flaws Ė and at the National once again Ė was Lifegame. Phelim McDermott and his Improbable comradesí version of Keith Johnstoneís impro approach to bio-drama contains almost limitless scope for fouling up. Thatís probably why Improbable, whose raison díêtre is to embrace the spontaneous and unexpected in theatre, like it so much. It just so happens that one of those mishaps occurred on the press night. Not a technical catastrophe to compare with the fire that delayed the opening curtain of The History Boys, but simply this: if your interview subject Ė about whom you know nothing before they walk onto the stage Ė turns out to be a modest, unostentatious sort of person, youíre not going to get much material to work with. Theyíre not going to volunteer much, or even give much away inadvertently, and so the improvised dramatic scenes will be hung on the flimsiest of hooks. If youíre not careful, you might be perceived not so much to be celebrating this personís life as to be persecuting them with two hours of personal intrusion. Itís a testimony to Lee Simpsonís skill as an interviewer and McDermottís, Angela Clerkinís, Guy Dartnellís et al. as improvisers that the awkwardness seldom if ever veered into outright discomfort. Indeed, one moment from an earlier Lifegame sums up both Improbable and theatre in general for me: when the interviewer gave an answer with clear dramatic possibilities, I looked over to see McDermott silently nodding and gesturing to his fellows, with a great big smile on his face as if this were the best game of letís-pretend ever. Which it is, of course.
So, letís pretend. Letís pretend that Rattle Of A Simple Man was any kind of reasonable bet for a West End run. (Iím now beginning to feel quite stuffed with humble pie as regards this sequence of shows closing before we can reprint their reviews.) And letís pretend that Beautiful And Damned can in good conscience be praised in any way. If the schoolboys in Bennettís play are quaint, singing Gracie Fields and acting out the end of Now, Voyager, then Charles Dyerís play seems positively antediluvian in places, for all that itís set in the Sixties, just at the moment when Philip Larkin has dunned it into us that sexual intercourse began. And if Percyís strict courtesy Ė refusing even to say ďDamnĒ in front of a lady (and counting even a hooker as a lady) Ė was intended to seem olde-worlde then, itís almost incomprehensible now.
John Cairdís production made the best of it in the circumstances. Michelle Collins was astutely cast half-in type, half-against it: Cyrenne has all the mendacity but none of the malice of EastEndersí Cindy Beale. And Stephen Tompkinson enjoyed the comedy of gormlessness as Percy, but was restrained either by himself or by Caird from the excess of mugging that so marred his appearance in Arsenic And Old Lace last year. Ultimately, though, the best comments were made by designer Robert Jones. The trompe-líoeil night cityscape just visible above and behind the main basement-flat set faintly recalled Ian MacNeilís now-classic reimagining of the setting for An Inspector Calls, and thus suggested that the world of this play is likewise out of step and out of kilter with ours... is, as Dusty Springfield proclaimed on the authentic period Dansette-a-like record player sitting downstage right, in the middle of nowhere.
Not unlike Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. For all Roger Cook, Les Reed and Kit Hesketh-Harveyís attempts to locate them at the centre of the jazz age, Prohibition whoop-de-do and so forth in Beautiful And Damned, they make much better icons of an era in theory than in practice. As the reviews generally make clear, this isnít actually a bad show; itís not one to add to the pantheon of stinkers such as Which Witch, Bernadette or The Fields Of Ambrosia, whose producer I still gleefully remember being grilled by Jeremy Paxman on BBC-TVís Newsnight: ďLetís face it, itís crap, isnít it?Ē. (Indeed, part of me had been hoping this would be such a catastrophe, because Iíve managed to miss seeing my proper share of these over the years and I have some catching up to do.) No, the problem with Beautiful And Damned isnít that itís bad, but that itís spectacularly mediocre.
It has ingredients that ought to lift it into graceful flight; they donít, but nor does it collapse with a thud. Iíd been listening to some of the quirky-but-cuddly early-í70s pop of Cookís outfit Blue Mink a little while before the show; itís perfect of its time, but he hasnít been able to transcend that idiom. Many of his and Reedís tunes seem simply to noodle around for a couple of bars in the middle of each line before they hit the final few notes that the composers knew they wanted to be there, not unlike the kind of school assembly that takes the mick out of the hymn by spending several verses going, ď...drone, mumble, drone, TO BE A PIL-GRIM!Ē (Look, I said I was from that kind of educational background myself, all right?) Nor is there really that much of a story to Scott íní Zelda: he makes it big, he drinks, she gibbers, The End. Still, as I say, this wonít live on in the anals [sic] of music-theatre history; itís a sizeable misjudgment, not a landmark calamity.
Whisper it softly, but is it perhaps time to re-evaluate the oeuvre of Sebastian Barry? Leaving aside 2002ís ď Charles HaugheyĒ play Hinterland, Barryís principal keynotes for the last several years have been a preoccupation with putting various of his forebears on the stage and a masterly, almost Conradian way with period language but one which doesnít necessarily lend itself to drama. In Whistling Psyche, he has written a pair of marvellous linked short stories; I wonder whether he ever considered turning them into a play? Iím sorry, thatís overly cruel. But in truth, all Claire Bloom and Kathryn Hunter can do as Florence Nightingale and Dr James Miranda Barry respectively is relish the authorís polished periods and loom portentously in the shadows.
Ah, the shadows: Barry has provided director Robert Delamere with a bare somewhere-and-nowhere location, and then done nothing with it at all, simply luxuriated in his charactersí words and narratives. Delamere does atmosphere well, but even he canít eke this meagre portion out to sustain an entire play. Hence Tim Mitchellís shadows. The final moments of the play attain a kind of sombre magic, but, well, sometimes the destination isnít worth the journey.
Written for Theatre Record.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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