Theatre Review: The History Boys

By Julia Parry | 9th June 2015

The History Boys cast

The History Boys cast

The History Boys by Alan Bennett. Director - Kate Saxon.

The History Boys is probably Alan Bennett’s best-known play. Since 2004 it has received numerous awards both here and in the States, and was also recently voted the nation’s favourite play. This week, York has the opportunity to see the latest incarnation of the story.

I was wondering which of the current cast of The History Boys will become stars of the future, as so many of the original cast members did: Dominic Cooper, Russel Tovey and James Corden are now all household names. I believe the popularity of the play derives from the fact that we can all relate to aspects of it: a favourite teacher (Hector is the inspirational teacher Alan Bennett wrote for himself as he never actually had one!) or if, "Someone dies at school and you remember it all your life…"

The class in the play represents an idealised glimpse of school life in the 1980s, so realism is unimportant. The boys convey a warmth of feeling towards one another; they respect each others intelligence and there is no sense of bullying.

The eight particularly bright boys have been chosen by the headmaster (Christopher Ettridge), always on the lookout for an opportunity for his school to excel in the league tables with no real interest or care as to how it is achieved. They are tutored in general studies by Hector (Richard Hope) whose unconventional teaching methods are used to draw out hidden depths of understanding and sentiment behind the prolific amount of prose, songs and acting out of themes randomly chosen in his lessons; he doesn’t have much interest in exams but depth of knowledge is his passion. The boys delight in acting out scenes from old classic films such as Now,Voyager (1942) and Brief Encounter (1945) or reciting passages from poetry. Hector teaches the boys to connect with a diverse subject range and is inspirational to them, and in turn they are tremendously loyal to him despite the fact he is flawed as a person (he has a couple of boys that he likes to give a lift on his scooter in order to grope them on his way home.)

Irwin (Mark Field) is a recently qualified teacher so is not much older than the boys. He is rather lost as to who he is as a person and what he himself wants from life. He encourages the boys to turn convention around, ask questions, look for minute details that would set them apart for a bored examiner, and teaches the boys how to pass exams. At first he derides Hector by calling his poetic references and quotations "gobbets" but eventually realises how useful they can be. His method of teaching is a flashy, journalistic approach which is a subtle dig by Alan Bennett, who has him later in life as a TV historian, then a politician.

Mrs Lintott (Susan Twist) is a seasoned history teacher of the old school variety. The boys are competently taught dates and facts then expand their knowledge with Hector and Irwin. Her great strength is having the ability to shrewdly read her colleagues and keep a step ahead of their thoughts and antics as the highly I intelligent ‘token woman on the team’. She is always eager to share her wise opinions with teachers and pupils alike.

Posner (Steven Roberts) is loosely based on Alan Bennett. He is a lover of music and hangs onto every word Hector says. He is very young for his age so therefore somewhat protected by the other boys. Steven Roberts is a joy to watch, inhabiting Posner perfectly and his wonderful renditions of songs by Barbara Streisand and Gracie Fields are delightful. Scripps (Alex Hope) flawlessly jumps from narrator to pianist to being one of the boys. He is a terrific all rounder and I feel is a name to look out for in the future.

Hector’s diverse range of knowledge and his love of popular culture is from his past so when Rudge (David Young), the black sheep of the bunch, gives a rendition of a Smiths song, "the new literacy", Hector is stumped as to what it is but agrees that ‘crap’ whether it be his old crap or their modern crap is all relevant.

As usual with Bennett there is some great profundity, big laughs and wonderfully cynical digs at the class system. A lot of the popularity of this play lies in its metaphor: the story is about education in that all its elements combine to create who we eventually come to be as people.

Showing at York Grand Opera House until Saturday 13 June, this is a brilliant adaptation of the play that will please even those who are very familiar with the story.

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