The History Boys

Alan Bennett
West Yorkshire Playhouse and Theatre Royal Bath Production
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, and touring
(2011)

The History Boys publicity photo

First premiered at the National Theatre in 2004, but set in a Sheffield grammar school in the eighties, The History Boys is a play which transcends period and place. So long as there are pupils to be taught and teachers with very different approaches to teaching methods, it will continue to be performed and to be relevant.

Here are a group of sixth-form boys aspiring for a place at Oxbridge and styles of teaching vary from basic facts with history teacher Mrs. Lintott (Penelope Beaumont) to sloppy and spontaneous methods from Hector whose teaching seems to have little relevance to the subject and who uses and random poetry is employed for no obvious reason. Ambitious Headmaster (Thomas Wheatley), anxious for his school to move up the academic League Tables, brings in supply teacher Irwin (Ben Lambert), scarcely older than the boys, who believes in spicing up history for the sole purpose of impressing the examiners. Lambert achieves a perfect mix of self-assurance and anxiety, keeping a tight control of his feelings.

It could have been difficult to disassociate oneself from the image of Richard Griffiths who originally and memorably created the role of Hector, but Philip Franks, with a rather less rotund figure, is equally impressive as the teacher who believes that “exams are the enemy of education.” The boys of course can see the faults in all their teachers, but seem to have the most affection for the inspirational Hector, despite his wandering hands and his habit of hitting them on the head at the least provocation. One class, conducted entirely in French, has them practicing the language by enacting a scene in a brothel when the Headmaster unexpectedly bursts in on a complete chaos with one boy ‘sans culottes’. Without missing a beat they instantly change the venue to a more acceptable military hospital. What could be a better test of their proficiency, as well as their quick-thinking method of dealing with the unanticipated?

All the boys perform brilliantly and I have never seen scene changes achieved quite so speedily, boisterously and expertly, with the insistent beat of pounding eighties’ music urging them on. Christopher Luscombe’s method of interrupting the academia of a classroom in this way could suggest the attraction of life outside school, but brings us smartly back to concentrate on Bennett’s outstandingly presented text, while the revolve in Janet Bird’s simple and plain classroom set has the effect of neatly switching focus from teacher to pupils or vice versa.

Alan Bennett’s dry, observational humour runs through the whole like a stream of pure gold; whether the content be sad, poignant, pensive or philosophical there is always something to bring a laugh or at least a wry grin at situations recalled from schooldays. Covering so many contentious subjects such as education, homosexuality, nepotism, gender bias and the effects of coincidence, Beaumont’s Mrs. Lintott has two beautifully expressed long and thoughtful monologues on the latter two, wondering if anyone realises “how depressing it can be teaching five centuries of male ineptitude” and “if Mrs.Headmaster had not been helping out at Age Concern on a Tuesday and seen what occurred on the back of a motorbike” would events have turned out completely differently.

So has education lost its way in a minefield of exams rather than producing a well-rounded human being ready to deal with life? Bennett comes to no conclusions, but surprisingly our sympathies are with Hector and, after all, did the exams help anyone in their later life?

Perhaps the best summing up is a quote from the text: “All knowledge is precious - take it, feel it, and pass it on.” - no matter where it comes from.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor