The History Boys
Quarry Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
It seems inevitable that West Yorkshire Playhouse will one day rename one of its two spaces 'The Alan Bennett Theatre'. Gratitude and economics! Leeds lad Bennett fills the space like no other. And, thank God, his are quality plays.
The History Boys, heralded by the programme as Bennett's 'masterpiece', is certainly a master class in playwrighting. It keeps moving with that apparently inexorable narrative logic which characterises all great plays. And it features structurally embedded bits of stage business that, speaking personally, I find utterly delightful. A character turns from the action and addresses the audience, it's a trick as old as theatre, but it's minted every night. And no one writes it better than Bennett. He uses the stage without ever drawing attention to the process. The result can be sublime.
Already a classic there is no need to say much about the play itself. We're told that it's set in a 1980s Sheffield 'grammar school'. But written through the setting, like Filey through rock, is 'anachronism'. These lads are unstuck in time and culture. (Staff room discussions of Nietzsche and Wittgenstein? No, Dylan Thomas had it right; '....and oh, the price of soap flakes'). But it doesn't matter in the least. Forget the documentary claim. This is a big, very intelligent human comedy with a lot to say about the experience of and attitudes to sexuality, education and coming of age. And it has superbly drawn, winnable characters. Just about as good as it gets then.
So, what of the production? Well, if you've seen the first production or the film... don't look here for anything new. But you will enjoy reliving the experience. If the play is new to you - grab a ticket. There are no weaknesses and many strengths. The boys are wonderful. How brilliant that we have so many exciting talents - and that this play gives them a platform to experience their own burgeoning stage presences. The three teachers are first class.
What we have here is a fine evening of thought provoking entertainment. My only reservation - the National production and film saw a near perfect embodiment of the scripted characters, it would have been interesting to have taken this as a standard and then to cast against type. But, no matter, this is a wonderful play and a satisfying production.
A final observation. On this stage young men come out with mucky talk that would lower the temperature on a Leeds bus and drown the engine with tut-tutting. But our refined Leeds audience responds with titters and cackles. I have a feeling that Mr Bennett would like a just one or two Leodensians to flap in disgust, storm out, even chase him up Eastgate with horsewhips. But no, Leeds honours its own, regardless. In this theatre he could have his actors singing the National Anthem and writhing naked in a sado-masochistic zoophiliac orgy and Mary Whitehouse lookalikes would still simper and titter, 'Oh, Alan! Naughty boy!' There are worse fates for a playwright. So let it not be 'The Alan Bennett Theatre' but 'The Saint Alan Bennett Theatre, home to he who can do no wrong.' And long may he keep trying shake off the reputation.
Running to 6th March
Seth Ewin reviewed this production on tour in Edinburgh
Reviewer: Ray Brown