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Arena Theatre was founded by John King in 1983 and has become one of Bournemouth, Poole and Dorset's leading theatre companies.
Never a theatre group to be pigeon-holed, Arena Theatre prides itself on performing plays that challenge actors and audience alike.
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Directed by Rachael Cheeseman with permission from Samuel French
Jack Haberfield as Scripps
James Cowan as Arthur
Jay Stockley as Rudge
Joe Rogers as Dakin
Will McGrotty as Crowther
Adam Reeves as Lockwood
Rory Moncaster as Posner
David Doust as Timms
Ryan Gregg as Irwin
Frances Folan as Mrs Lintott
Sean Watts as Headmaster
Paul Nelson as Hector
THIS is probably Alan Bennett’s best-known and successful play, thanks to its long West End run and popular film. Whether it is his best is another matter. It is certainly a clever piece of writing that tackles many – too many? – important topics, notably the nature and purpose of history and of education generally.
The setting which gives Bennett the chance to explore these questions is a class of eight boys preparing for the Oxford entrance exam. They are being taught by the unconventional Hector, but the ambitious Headmaster has no faith in his methods and brings in Irwin, with his more mainstream ideas, to improve the boys’ chances. Hector and Irwin’s conflicting views on education lie at the heart of the play. The anarchic Hector has no time for exams and teaches the boys to love what they learn for its own sake; for example, he encourages them to memorise poetry to broaden their minds and for the pleasure of doing so, so is furious when Irwin commends him for teaching them examiner-friendly ‘gobbets’.
Hector is short-tempered, inspired, vulnerable, compelling. It must be a lovely part to play, which is not the same thing as saying that it is easy to play well. However, Paul Nelson’s is a towering performance. He is larger than life physically as well as in other ways, but he conveys Hector’s kaleidoscopic character, razor-sharp brain and the passion that lies behind his rapport with the boys. Like all the best eccentrics, he has a core of consistency and logic which this performance brings out.
The secret of the play’s commercial success is the dynamic relationships that the boys have with their teachers and with each other. They’re a likeable lot: highly intelligent – certainly bright enough to see through their teachers – but still teenagers who enjoy messing about. So good, pacy ensemble playing is essential and the eight young actors in this production can hardly be faulted. When so many local companies struggle to find competent young men, it is a joy to see eight such talented ones working excellently together.
It may be invidious to single out members of this splendid ensemble, but Jack Haberfield as Scripps is the closest the play has to a narrator and carries the responsibility well. Rory Moncaster brings pathos to the part of Posner, the put-upon Jewish homosexual, but also shows that he is well capable of sticking up for himself. Dakin is the alpha male of the group and Joe Rogers perhaps does not establish his dominance in the first half, but comes more into his own in the second.
Irwin’s role is to provide a counterpoint to Hector, and Ryan Gregg does not kowtow or shrink from confrontation. Initially this means that he is unnecessarily shouty, but he finds more subtlety and vulnerability in the part as the play develops. As the headmaster, Sean Watts gives glimpses of the passion that lies hidden in someone whose main concerns have to be league tables and what the governors will think. In the rather thankless part of Mrs Lintott, who acts as a kind of world-weary neutral observer, Francesca Folan is convincingly sharp, even waspish at times.
The director, Rachael Cheeseman, uses the small space in the Studio skilfully. Even the Studio’s bench seating (as uncomfortable as ever – take a cushion) could not spoil the enjoyment of her excellent production.
Alan Bennett’s sympathies are clearly with Hector rather than the exam-obsessed Headmaster, so it is an ironic coincidence that one of the cast is currently studying ‘The History Boys’ for his English Literature A level!