The History Boys by Alan Bennett was first performed in 2004 and is regarded by many as the best of his plays. Last year the play was voted as the nation's favourite in a national poll (I presume an English one here). The story is that of a select group of eight "History Boys" as they return to school in the Autumn after their A levels (we are in England) and prepare to study for Oxbridge exams in the hope of gaining a place at Cambridge or Oxford universities.
Although never stated, the music from the play such as the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams" and Heaven 17's "Temptation" place us firmly in 1983. The music is carefully used in the background at times to match the mood of the play.
Our History Boys are Posner (Steven Roberts), Scripps (Alex Hope), Dakin (Kedar Williams-Stirling), Rudge (David Young), Lockwood (Patrick McNamee), Timms (Joshua Mayes-Cooper), Akthar (Sid Sagar) and Crowther (Matthew Durkan). Academic staff are Headmaster (Christopher Ettridge), Mrs Lintott (Susan Twist), Hector (Richard Hope) and Irwin (Mark Field).
The "boys" are a product of their history teacher Mrs Lintott and their general studies teacher Hector. The new arrival of a part time teacher and "Cambridge graduate" brought in to sharpen the boys up for the entrance exam changes the boys' and teachers' views in subtle ways.
There is a lot going on in this play and a lot of dialogue. To appreciate this class, you really have to give them your undivided attention. This is not a play that you can just sit and skim over as you will lose so much of the story if you do.
The boys are at first an odd mixture. They are deliberately set in an idealistic classroom that I doubt anyone ever went to. They seem to all like one another and respect one another's views and sexual orientations. There is no bullying, and they seem to debate with Hector subjects years beyond their ability. We have here a group of mature adults more than hormone-driven teenagers.
The boys all have very different personalities, and come from different ethnic backgrounds, but although they are all impressive on stage, the very nature of the script gives two of the boys the most time on stage and the most rounded characters to work with. Steven Roberts as Posner probably gets the part with the most room to display his talents. Posner is Jewish, openly gay, and loves bursting into songs at any given opportunity (and the chaotic classroom of Hector provides many). Posner, if anyone, to me is the glue that holds all these different people together and Steven's performance is very good. Without a strong Posner, this play would not work as well as it does.
Dakin (played by Kedar Williams-Stirling) is of Afro Carribean descent and to the envy of the other boys is going out with the headmaster's secretary Fiona. Posner has a huge crush on Dakin and to underline the odd world the boys live in, they all accept this without question. Also accepted with no questions is Dakin's fascination and growing infatuation with the new teacher Irwin.
Richard Hope as general studies teacher Hector puts in one of those very gentle but great character performances. Hector is a bit of an eccentric and runs his class in almost anarchy. His belief is that knowledge, poetry, words, education are for life and not to any academic or exam end. This is a view not shared by Headmaster (Christopher Ettridge) who is more concerned with his school's league tables results than "lifetime education".
Hector also has a bit of a crisis and personal meltdown as his teaching career takes an unexpected turn for the worse.
The arrival of Irwin and his views that one should always re-look at history from a different angle (particularly on an entrance examination paper) is a revelation to the mindset of the boys (and some teachers). Irwin teaches the boys to ask "what if?". Mark Field makes an excellent Irwin and it is the "future" Irwin the television history presenter that we first meet on stage. The play does cleverly jump back and forward at times and we do get to find out what became of "The History Boys". I am not going to tell you though, go and see for yourself.
This play is not just about the "boys", but it also questions how we view history. At one point Susan Twist (Mrs Lintott) gives us all her views on why history is only viewed from a male perspective. It is to me also interesting to note that out of all the pupils and teachers her gender is the only one that demands she has a title (Mrs). Susan Twist is a very good Mrs Lintott and gently underplays the role.
This is a piece of work by a writer at the top of his game and is well worth catching up with at its run here at The King's. It is a rose tinted look back at a class-room that when written probably never existed, but also sadly a world where the inter-play between teachers and pupils would now probably never be allowed to happen in our politically correct and over protected world.
Review by Tom King