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The History Boys

Alan Bennett
National Theatre touring production
The Lowry, Salford
(2005)

Production photograph

This National Theatre production of Alan Bennett's new play, directed by Nicholas Hytner, enjoyed a sell-out run at the National and has now sold out a five-day run in Salford at the Lowry's largest theatre.

The History Boys is based around an A Level class at a boys' school in the north of England in the 1980s (a selection of 80s pop songs is used during the links as a clue to the era). The period setting is very important to the play, as it places it at a time when the Thatcher government began to introduce sweeping reforms to the education system including a National Curriculum, direct funding for schools and league tables. These changes have since been enthusiastically embraced by every government since, left and right, and are still heavily criticised by many people involved in education in this country. In some ways, it could even be looked at as a parable of the Thatcherite changes to British society as a whole - if, that is, there was such a thing as 'society' in a Thatcherite world.

The play revisits ground covered many times by such classics as Goodbye Mister Chips and Dead Poet's Society in that it pits the methods of a progressive teacher interested in giving pupils a fully-rounded education to help them think for themselves against a more rigid one interested only in results and university places. However in Bennett's play, the progressive teacher is not the young firebrand but the old teacher close to retirement, and the young teacher has been brought in by the head teacher to improve the school's standing in the league tables and get the boys into Oxbridge colleges instead of 'lesser' universities, irrespective of the boys' own desires. The young teacher turns out to be a bit of a radical as well in a very different way, deliberately courting controversy with his historical research to gain publicity. The portrayal of the boys, however, seems a bit too idealistic, even given the charisma of their teacher, as they are all well-behaved, enthusiastic, take part in discussions and quote poetry and literature, plus they seem perfectly at ease with differing sexualities in their group. This is very different from my memories of an eighties boys' grammar school (I was one of the last people to get into a particular boys' grammar school in the north of England at this time before it stopped being a grammar school due to education reforms).

This is a National Theatre production, and it shows a slickness and polish and some wonderful performances that we should expect from this company. Bob Crowley's clever design places walls in various positions in pairs at forty-five degrees to the front of the stage to represent the different rooms in the school. There are video links between scenes directed by Ben Taylor, which do not really add anything to the play at all but give the audience something to look at during the scene changes.

The cast works superbly together and all are excellent in their roles. Desmond Barritt is wonderful as Hector, the old teacher with a love of art and language. Bruce Alexander's headmaster shows his single-minded determination to look good and get results that show up in his reports, and he also shows some great comic expressions and timing - particularly in the scene in the classroom that is almost entirely in French. Tobias Menzies also creates a wonderful character as Irwin, the new teacher with the mission to get the boys into Oxbridge. The boys all create very well-defined and different characters and work very well together.

This is a wonderful play that is extremely funny in parts but which has plenty of food for thought about the current education system, the seeds of which were sown at the time the play was set. It does not reflect school life of the 1980s particularly accurately in many ways, but it uses the school setting very well to make its point. Nicholas Hytner's production - recreated for this tour by Simon Cox - is superb and brings the best out of the play with a wonderful cast.

"The History Boys" runs until 5 November 2005

Peter Lathan reviewed this production at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle

Visit our sponsor 1st 4 London Theatre to book tickets for the London revival of The History Boys.

Reviewer: David Chadderton