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 Stacey’s 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.