The History Boys

Alan Bennett
Wyndham's Theatre
(2007)

Publicity photo

Is The History Boys theatrical perfection? Having seen it with a new cast in a smaller space, it is still close enough to that Nirvana to deserve every accolade and award that it received when it first appeared in the Olivier Theatre at the National and then on Broadway.

Alan Bennett's love of words shines through and proves to be a great education: he is incredibly witty on a constant basis and has created a whole crew of entirely believable characters.

That would be enough but, in addition, he comes up with a plot that is both funny and very moving and makes a number of telling points about the decline of our political and cultural thinking, initially under the government of Margaret Thatcher but also subsequently.

The History Boys, now also available in cinemas with almost the whole of the original stage cast, is set in a run of the mill Sheffield Grammar School in the 1980s and focuses on a post-A Level Oxbridge History class. The eight pupils are designed to be a good cross section of (male) society.

They witness a battle to the death between the ageing traditionalist who believes in knowledge for its own sake and loves both his pupils and his subject - Hector (played by Stephen Moore) who believes that "all knowledge is precious" - and a fraudulent younger rival, Irwin, representing a different era and ethos.

Irwin, played by Orlando Wells, has been drafted in by William Chubb's Felix, the school's manic Headmaster. His goal is to get results at any cost and drive the establishment up the dreaded league tables.

His teaching style is the antithesis of Hector's, flashiness being a positive virtue, and his major tactic is summed up perfectly by his pupils as "the wrong end of the stick is the right one". It is no surprise that eventually learning gives way to celebrity and he ends up as a shock-populist TV presenter.

The teaching team is augmented by Isla Blair as Miss Lintott. She starts low key then adds a feminine and feminist dimension to the piece.

We begin to live the lives of the teenage pupils and their teachers and also, by extension, of Alan Bennett who must surely have put so much of himself into each of them for these characters to be so convincing and sympathetic. They specialise in jokes and comic turns, which hit a peak in an ad hoc French class, that must surely become part of theatre legend.

The play is wonderfully constructed and builds to a truly tragic finale as weakness leads to death, which also acts as an oblique comment on the fate that has befallen both this country's education system and its subjection of the populace to a winner-takes-all brutality.

The acting, now under the direction of Simon Cox, taking over Nicholas Hytner's directions, is still of high quality. However, it has to be said that, like Bob Crowley's set, Hector has slimmed right down. Stephen Moore does not have the stage presence of Richard Griffiths who created the part but proves outstanding in the scenes of desolation.

Amongst the boys, Steven Webb and Ben Barnes as a very wimpy Posner and super-handsome Dacre acquit themselves well in the major parts, with support from stage debutant Owain Arthur making Timms particularly amusing.

The History Boys is as good as they say and should be seen on stage. Don't miss out on an exhilarating but educational experience.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher