The History Boys

The History Boys – at least according to the programme notes accompanying this latest tour – is “generally regarded as Alan Bennett’s masterpiece”. It certainly ranks among his most commercially successful works, with sold-out runs in the West End and on Broadway, an acclaimed film version (adapted by Bennett), numerous stage revivals around the world (including this latest UK tour, by Sell A Door Theatre Company), and apparent overwhelming public love, at least according to English Touring Theatre’s poll to find the “Nation’s Favourite Play”.

Focused on eight boys at a North of England Grammar school preparing for their Oxbridge entrance exams, The History Boys is, to some extent, an exercise in contrasting different views of education.

And yet… this all seems somewhat unfair. Bennett has arguably written many far more concise and audience-stretching works. The History Boys, by contrast, is a forlorn love letter to a softened past, where even a 60 year old teacher “innocently” fondling the genitals of his 17/18 year old students is viewed as something negotiable. When one of the young characters chooses to define history as “Just one f***ing thing after another,” even that example of risquébluntness feels dated – and yet The History Boys was first performed just 11 years ago.

Focused on eight boys at a North of England Grammar school preparing for their Oxbridge entrance exams, The History Boys is, to some extent, an exercise in contrasting different views of education. Inspirational old teacher Hector, played here with genuine gusto by Richard Hope, believes that all knowledge is intrinsically precious for its own sake. Young supply teacher Irwin, in contrast, focuses on knowledge’s utility, and how taking deliberately contrary positions can get you noticed. The Headmaster’s only interest, meantime, is in how the boys’ success could improve his school’s position in the national league tables. It’s left to almost the only woman of any note on the stage, the straight-forward teacher Mrs Lintott (a wonderfully wiry Susan Twist) to all-too-infrequently prick this masculine world’s numerous peccadilloes.

Requiring eight young men in its cast, it’s fair to say that The History Boys already has a justified reputation for discovering new stars – the original cast in 2004 included Banished/Being Human’s Russell Tovey and Gavin and Staceys James Corden, while future Doctor Who Matt Smith joined the following year. What futures beckon for this line-up is, as yet, unknown but three of the younger cast stand out: Edinburgh’s own Alex Hope as the religiously-minded Scripps, Kedar William-Stirling as the sexually confident and active Dakin, and former - Hollyoaks regular Steven Roberts as “the youngest” boy Posner, whose singing and dancing routines are on occasions genuinely moving.

Overall, this is a breezy, lively production presenting some excellent talents to the world, but if this is really the nation’s favourite play, then the nation really should get out to the theatre more often.

Reviews by Paul F Cockburn

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The Blurb

Winner of over 30 major awards including the Olivier and Tony Awards for Best New Play, Alan Bennett’s comic masterpiece was voted the nation’s favourite play in a recent national survey.

Set in the 1980s, The History Boys is the story of a group of bright, funny and unruly sixth-formers in pursuit of sex, sport and a place at university. Their maverick English teacher is at odds with the young and shrewd supply teacher, whilst their headmaster is obsessed with results and league tables. Their A Levels may be over, but their true education is only just beginning.

From the team who brought us Avenue Q last spring, The History Boys is a hilariously funny and exceptionally moving play about the true purpose of education. This national treasure has proved to be the perfect night at the theatre.

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