Point Park Globe

‘History Boys’ isn’t history making at Playhouse

Production is under-developed, requires tightening

Written By Amy Philips-Haller, For The Globe

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The Conservatory Theater Company’s performance of the 2006 Tony-Award winning “History Boys” is like expecting a top-shelf liquor, only to be handed a watered-down version. 

Playwright Alan Bennett (“Talking Heads,” “The Madness of King George III”) wrote the highly regarded drama as a reflection on his own education experiences.  In a 2006 television interview, Bennett recalled his Oxford University admission.  “I felt like a fake,” he said. His entrance in the highly esteemed university was based on his ability to successfully maneuver through the methods of test taking, lacking an authentic love of learning.

Enter characters Hector and Irwin, teachers at a Northern England grammar school in the 1980s where Bennett’s story takes place.  Hector taught the delight of learning, while Irwin focused on methods used to achieve high test scores.  Whether in the script or on stage, the men and the actors were opposites.

But this Hector, as depicted in Thursday night’s preview, is an unconvincing character. Actor Michael Morley (“Cabaret,” “Kiss Me Kate,” “42nd Street”) is an unconvincing Hector.  His dialect floats between British, American, and an occasional dash of German. It is hard to visualize Morley as an old man, when neither his hair nor his makeup show any signs of aging.  His classroom scenes lack an intimacy with students, while he, ironically, makes advances on his 18- and 19-year-old pupils.

Meanwhile, Evan Wormald (“Cabaret,” “Tales of Fourth Grade Nothing”) makes the grade with a strong performance as Irwin. In a pivotal scene in which the teacher urges his students to think outside of academic norms, Wormald leads his castmates with compelling enthusiasm.  A bit of magic takes place as he circled through and around desks pushing students to join the intellectual banter.  For a moment, the classroom scene awakens with a passionate academic fervor.  Bravo!

Perhaps the best performance is by Conservatory Theater Company veteran William Bureau who plays Dakin, a student who offers comic relief, sexual exploits and experimentation.  He never faltered from his British dialect or delivery, and he meets the challenges presented to his character.  In one scene, the class role-plays with Hector entirely in French.  Imagine the challenges associated with connecting a mainly English-speaking audience to a scene that is not performed in the audience’s native language.  Yet Bureau nails it with animated facial gestures and physical performance. Theater-goers chimed in with well-timed laughter and gasps at all the right moments in reward for Bureau’s skill as an outstanding actor.

Unfortunately, no single performance could save this production.  Director Sheila McKenna (Conservatory Theater Company, Quantum Theater, Bricolage Production Company) underutilized the creative advantages a black box theater lends.  A blank canvass, this theater mileiu provides endless opportunities to embellish the moods and atmosphere of the drama—as well as to engage theater goers.  Lighting, set design and sound effects can play their own, unique starring role in this kind of setting.

These elements can breathe life into an empty space. That was not the case here.  On a rare occasion, McKenna employed a spotlight effectively Thursday night, but the stage lighting did not typically accentuate the moment or mood. In one creative effect, for example, McKenna employed lighting effectively to facilitate a set change. The black background was lit with a white chalk-like sketch of a library, church or city. 

McKenna used the space as if it were a proscenium set-up.  Desks and actors normally played to the front of the stage, and two-thirds of the audience was minimally addressed, making it often difficult to hear. McKenna also needs to polish the blocking of the scenes and the segue between them, to smooth out what sometimes is a rough transition.

In the original Broadway version of “History Boys,” video was used on the backdrop to lead from one scene to another. This element was not included in McKenna’s version, making the flow much harder to follow.  Music from the 1980s was not enough to introduce the next scene or put it into context. 

It is worth noting that the second act brought vast improvement with timing, acting, creative use of space, lighting and sound effects.  Perhaps audience reaction is the best form of measurement in this case.  During intermission, nearly two-dozen audience members left.  Those who remained, closed the show with a standing ovation.

Like Bennett’s experience with admission into Oxford, McKenna used method to successfully direct the play.  One more performance merits noting:  In the final scene, students gather to sing “Bye Bye Blackbird.” They fill the theater with a thick rich melody and pitch perfect tones that capture the essence of the play’s final moments, which are a demonstration that a love of learning has fallen silent to method.

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Michael Morley’s name. 

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8 Comments

8 Responses to “‘History Boys’ isn’t history making at Playhouse”

  1. Sheila McKenna on April 9th, 2019 10:31 pm

    The reviewer has misspelled the name (twice) of Point Park University student Michael Morley, the actor who so beautifully plays “Hector” in the Conservatory Theatre Company’s production of “The History Boys”. Please make the correction out of respect for the work that Mr. Morley, along with each member of the ensemble, has put into crafting a memorable, touching, and honestly played performance.
    Sincerely,
    Sheila McKenna, Director, “The History Boys’

  2. Nicole Pampena on April 10th, 2019 3:00 pm

    Hi Sheila– we have updated the article with this correction and apologize for the mistake.
    Nicole Pampena
    Online Editor

  3. Adam on April 10th, 2019 7:08 am

    This is the most trash review I have ever read. Shame on Point Park for letting this get published. I’ve seen well over 20 Broadway shows and the caliber of this production equals that of what I have seen on Broadway. The author of this article is bitter and when reading this sounds like an uneducated theatre goer.

  4. James on April 10th, 2019 5:20 pm

    To think a critic would compare a college level production to the Broadway production and say the director missed an opportunity, there shows that the writer knows nothing about theatre or what it means to be an artist. I’m curious to see this critic’s other reports of theatre because it sounds like she doesnt know what she’s talking about. She doesnt even know how a black box theatre works haha!

  5. Evan Wormald on April 10th, 2019 5:32 pm
  6. Emily on April 11th, 2019 8:29 am

    And now, my review:
    The Globe, a student-run college newspaper, lacks the allure, professionalism, and skill to produce well-written, compelling pieces. As a result, its writers often fall back on overused cliche and sensationalism. In a recent review of the Playhouse’ latest show, “History Boys,” the author kindlessly criticizes every aspect of the show without giving a single credential of his own authority, or acknowledging the possibility of personal errance as a clearly uneducated theatre goer. The author comes across as whiney, and truly crosses a line with his criticism of Director and faculty member Sheila McKenna. The trite review tries too hard to be cutting edge, ignoring the massive undertaking an almost 3-hour play is to perform with high energy. The author’s most heinous crime is the verbal assault against Mikey Morley, or “Hector”. Morley’s characterization was superb. His eccentric, at times manic energy was great fun for the audience and the ensemble of the show fed off his energy. Perhaps, had the author been sitting in a different part of the “poorly utilized space,” he would not have missed this obvious conclusion.

  7. John on April 11th, 2019 6:32 pm

    This review has me gobsmacked. I can not believe that you and I saw the same show. The only way this review makes sense is if you, Ms. Phillips-Haller, are practicing the very same tactic Irwin wanted his boys to utilize: find an absurd perspective of an event and manipulate arguable circumstances surrounding it to “support” your statement. (1) There is simply NO chance that two dozen people left this show during intermission because they thought it was so bad. Use a little logic: it was preview night. (2) Mr. Morley: you were outstanding. You took on a character 30-40 years your senior and did so wonderfully. Bravo. (3) I’m not sure what was so difficult about the scene transitions. At no point did I feel lost or confused from one scene to the next. And, honestly, I don’t even know where to go with your criticism of how the space was used.

  8. Chris Rawson on April 18th, 2019 8:45 am

    On behalf of would-be theater reviewers everywhere, I was embarrassed by this clunky, judgmental review of “History Boys.”
    Criticism, as in literary criticism, etc., is an act of understanding and illumination. Cataloging faults isn’t criticism or even reviewing, just its reductio ad absurdum. Anybody is welcome to their own opinion, but what are opinions worth if not backed up with knowledge and insight? A theater critic should be the most engaged, empathetic member of the audience, not the least, and should have a more informed, interesting response.
    This critic misunderstands how this play works and how audiences respond. You can’t follow her line of thought because she jumps around so much. She doesn’t seem to understand the basic experience of theatrical imagination. She can’t even keep her verb tenses straight, which drives me to distraction. And I challenge anyone to make sense of her final paragraph.
    OK, I get it, she’s a student and should be given a chance to learn by failing; we shouldn’t blame students for inexperience, ignorance and error. If it is a new policy of The Globe to have students review student shows, bravo! But find reviewers with better prose and more sense of their own limitations.
    By the way, this “History Boys” was a generally fine staging of a difficult but wonderful play. Having seen and reviewed it previously in London, New York and Pittsburgh, I was delighted that students could carry it off with so much skill and understanding. And just for the record, the invention, fluidity, clarity and speed of the staging – especially the transitions — were a chief distinction.
    I am only indirectly a member of the Point Park community, but the Point Park theater program is a valuable Pittsburgh resource. The Point Park paper should take reviewing it more seriously — and then provide competent, sympathetic copy editing.

    (Chris Rawson is Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and KDKA-TV senior theater critic and a former chair of the American Theatre Critics Association who taught review writing at Pitt for many years)

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