The History Boys

Alan Bennett
David Hutchinson and Philip Rowntree for Sell A Door Theatre Company
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford

The History Boys Credit: Matt Martin

To the loud insistent beat of '80s pop music, the boys bound in, laughing, chattering, jumping and spinning as they arrange the classroom desks and chairs, and immediately one boy stands out from the crowd.

Making his stage debut is Steve Roberts as Posner and his leaps, pirouettes and generally happy demeanour draw all eyes to him. His character, however, is not so positive later commentating forlornly “I’m a Jew. I’m small. I’m homosexual, and I live in Sheffield. I’m fucked.” His rendition of “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” is beautifully, meaningfully sung. How confusing it can be to be adolescent and ‘different’.

He is in love with Kedar Williams-Stirling’s Dakin, a handsome boy who struts arrogantly and confidently through life sure of his own attraction.

Set in a grammar school in the '80s with A levels over, all these eight pupils have achieved excellent results, but they are hoping to gain a place at university and are staying on to take an entrance exam in history, something which gives Christopher Ettridge’s league table obsessed headmaster cause for concern.

History teacher Mrs Lintott (an amusingly sardonic Susan Twist) has taught the boys well, despite her indignation that women have little place in history, and she has spent her time covering "five centuries of male ineptitude". Her teaching concentrates on facts, which is a good test for their memory but doesn’t make them stand out from the other candidates.

Enter newly-qualified teacher Irwin, hardly older than the boys but with ideas to pass exams by being different from the others, and preferably controversial, to make the bored examiners take notice. “Dull,dull, dull” he says about their present efforts but a nicely judged performance from Mark Field hints at his own insecurities under the confident exterior.

"Exams are the enemy of education," says Richard Hope’s very liberal English teacher Hector, wanting his pupils to become more rounded adults. One of his classes is even conducted almost entirely in French as they enact a scene in a brothel just as the headmaster bursts in. In a beat, they switch the scene to a more acceptable military hospital.

Ten years after its first production, this is alleged to be the nation’s favourite play, despite the fact that over the stage hangs Hector’s motor bike—a symbol of his habit of groping whichever boy he has as his pillion passenger. It would seem it was never more than touching—well what can you do on a speeding motor bike—and the boys are amused by his predilection and play along with it, but it’s quite surprising that it is still accepted so readily with the number of high profile paedophiles keeping the newspapers in business.

The play continues, however, full of Bennett’s wit and wisdom and his own uncertainties about life and how it ought to be lived, and it’s also very very funny as well as fun. With Bennett’s dialogue, the boys are more erudite and witty than they would be in real life, and they are all friendly and respectful with each other; no bullying here. The subjects covered in the play are vast, varied, and worth thinking about, taking in war (including the holocaust), religion, life, love, sexuality, a tragedy and death.

Great play, well presented and performed under Kate Saxon’s direction and enormous fun. Did they all achieve their places at Oxford or Cambridge? Well the selection system is a surprise.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor