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The History Boys

Alan Bennett
National Theatre, BBC Audiobook
(2006)

On occasion, an excess of enthusiasm can have a similar effect to mild hatred. In either case, it can put readers off sharing the experience that is under review.

Having raved about the theatrical performance and the script, there is a risk that some might get a little bored at yet another demonstration of devotion to Alan Bennett's superlative play.

It is comforting to know that at the press night of Nicholas Hytner's original production of the play, pretty much everyone had the same view and further, that one of our best-known critics from a highly-regarded broadsheet is of the opinion that The History Boys, together with Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, is one of the best two plays that he has had the good fortune to see in a career spanning decades.

Even though it is a delight on stage, Alan Bennett's work often lends itself to a radio. This double CD set is a recording of a Radio 3 broadcast of a slightly rewritten version of the play amended to fill in a few features that cannot be observed.

The first pleasure is in listening to the beautifully modulated tones of almost the entire cast and, in particular, the actors playing the teachers led by Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour. The pupils do well to but in some cases this medium exposes Yorkshire accents that have been learned rather than inbred.

At the surface level, the story is simple. The two-and-a-half hour production follows the experiences of a group of Oxbridge candidates at a northern boys grammar-school in the 1980s. As one might expect, they are a rum bunch with a little bit of everything. Bright and dim; introvert and extrovert; Christian, Jew and Muslim; gay, straight and don't know yet.

By the time that their exam results are announced, they have been able to observe a variety of teaching styles and, in an implausibly happy false ending, each attains the goal for which they had been striving so hard.

Underlying this allegory of Thatcherite Britain is a carefully constructed vision of the time with the conflicting imperatives of four teachers brewing into a war that symbolically leaves one dead, one a cripple and all, including their charges, very much the wiser.

There's a great deal of Alan Bennett's quirky and often incredibly funny comedy but also the tragedy of the "unpredictable and unquantifiable" but inspirational and generous Hector. He is played by Richard Griffiths who, when his man finally reaches his nadir, lets out a visceral scream that will long live in the memory. This wonderful, flawed man is the representative of tradition with his love of art and literature but also his desire that his boys will grow up into a fully rounded human beings.

He is contrasted with Felix the headmaster, played by Clive Merrison, whose only goal is to get exam passes, prefiguring league tables, but much more with Geoffrey Streatfeild's young fraud, Irwin.

This is a man who knows every trick in the book, but has probably never actually read any book and therefore is ideally placed to become a TV journalist in later life. His quick-fix approach to teaching could hardly be more different from that of Hector and lone feminist Dorothy ,played by Frances de la Tour.

Each of these actors does wonderfully well and the boys are also represented by a number of star performers, led Samuel Barnett as immature, possibly gay Posner, Russell Tovey playing unlikely Oxbridge candidate Rudge and Dominic Cooper in the part of class Adonis, Dakin.

The History Boys has won every best play award in the UK and more recently, a Tony in New York. That is a measure of its quality and for those who cannot wait for the DVD, this competitively-priced CD featuring the original stage cast (except the first Irwin) cannot be too highly recommended.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher