Sunday, September 09, 2007

"History Boys" doesn't quite pass the test

My freelance review:
As the opening play of the 41st season of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Alan Bennett's multiply-honored "The History Boys" doesn't quite rise to the top of the class.

And that's really disappointing, given a fundamentally good story with underlying messages that were evidently heard and appreciated as the Broadway production earned a 2006 Tony Award for Best Play.

"The History Boys" is the story of eight unruly, bright, talented and funny working class students in the north of Thatcher-era England hoping to pass their exams and secure undergraduate places for themselves at prestigious schools.

Along the way, they deal with faculty members possessing differing styles -- mainly Hector, a rambunctious, fervent teacher of language and poetry who attempts to ignite the boys' passion for knowledge and for life, and Irwin, a new teacher intent on helping the boys test well.

While the cast members offer strong individual performances, there are some distracting issues with the direction and staging of the production.

The eight classmates are presented as too much of an ensemble for the audience to be able to appreciate the individual characters. And this escalates into more of an issue as the story advances in the second act.

The rich story and dialog would have been complemented by rich, detailed sets -- or contrasted by minimalistic sets -- but the middle-of-the-road sets used give the production an inadequate feeling.

The show is presented in a very episodic -- and distracting -- style, with loud early-80's music interjected in an uncreative 'blackout/set change' manner that makes the play seem all the more episodic.

Overall, "The History Boys" doesn't quite pass the test.

"The History Boys" plays through September 30 at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis in Webster Groves.

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