Irwin says that if you want to learn about Margaret Thatcher or Joseph Stalin or Hollywood, you should study Henry VIII. He may be on to something. Mags and Joe and Hank, after all, were targeted for assassination (although the plot against Henry was apparently a product of his imagination). Throw in a star-studded cast, and you have a landmark film on their lives, replete with such parallels. The only practical difference is that Joe and Hank are dead, although Mags isn't feeling so good just now.
Irwin, a central figure in Cygnet Theatre Company's The History Boys, could probably direct the movie—such is his love for showmanship as an educational tool. It's all in the spin, the razzle-dazzle, he tells the eight British boarding school seniors he's been hired to coach as they get set to apply to prestigious universities. But while the pudding-faced Irwin (an Oxford grad) is set in his ways about how history should be taught, so too does playwright Alan Bennett weigh in on the purpose of education today. Learning for its own sake, he seems to say, has its place as well—and amid the generous stage time devoted to each side of the equation (to say nothing of the boys' irresistible charm), this play is an excellent statement on educational methods and a helluva lot of fun.
Just as in The Theatre, Inc.'s terrific One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest from last year (in which the inmates made the show), The History Boys takes its cues from the motley collection of students. Director Sean Murray punctuates their breezy camaraderie with chaotic scene changes involving the boys themselves—exactly the touch Irwin (Brian Mackey) would appreciate as the boys adopt his way of thinking. Meanwhile, Hector (an outstanding Tom Stephenson), who playfully swats his students (and hits on them outside class), exults in knowledge as its own reward. In the end, he'll lose more than his dignity.
“History nowadays is not a matter of conviction,” Irwin says. “It's a performance.”
He's right about that, at least in the theatrical sense—but surely, good performance art doesn't necessarily exclude factual matter (look how much mileage Leno and Letterman get out of their monologues as they cite current events). Bennett doesn't address that angle in his play, and that's too bad, because he could have shaped Irwin's argument into something less cut and dried. But do enjoy Stephenson's turn as Hector and the lushness of the debate. It even looks good as a film (released in 2005), and that would please Irwin to no end.
The piece is staged at Cygnet's Old Town venue. If on its strength you're inclined to attend subsequent Cygnet shows, you better get used to the routine. The group has opted not to renew the lease on its El Cajon Boulevard space when it expires in July of next year. The company says the high cost of running two spaces is at the core of its decision; in these shaky times, that's only understandable. Much magic has unfolded in that 141-seat venue since its opening in 2003—I trust that the spiffed-up Old Town space, at the eastern edge of a major state park, will yield many moments of the same caliber. Heck, with The History Boys, it already has. This review is based on the opening-night production of Feb. 28. The History Boys runs through March 29 at Cygnet's Old Town stage, 4040 Twiggs St. in Old Town. $17-$46. 619-337-1525.