The History Boys, Theatre Royal Brighton, until February 14
The first time I saw The History Boys a while ago I didn’t enjoy it. Given Alan Bennett’s ‘national treasure’ status that’s probably blasphemous.
But the new production, staged at The Theatre Royal, Brighton from February 9-14 has converted me from sour critic to smiling aficionado.
Excellent staging helped, but top marks must go to the exceptionally talented, youthful cast who had the gangling, bouncy physicality of schoolboys coupled with a disturbingly adult biting wit and, as director Kate Saxon points out, possibly too much erudition for a bunch of 1980s state-school history students. Never mind, the dialogue educates us. My only quibble; was school life quite as homoerotic? Perhaps it was – I attended an all-girls school when our only frisson of excitement was the sight of workmen mending the guttering on the roof.
The play covers the span of an autumn term after ‘A’ levels when a select group of eight history students stay on to study for Oxbridge exams.
It focuses on the contrast between teaching methods. ‘Hector’ (played by Richard Hope) who benignly supervises entire playlets in cod-French and encourages his young charges to learn prose and poetry by heart. There are some hilarious re-enactments of Brief Encounter and Now Voyager. We can all reminisce (even me) about one former teacher who peeled back the film coating the brain and exposed our minds to literature, art and music.
A new teacher, Irwin (Mark Field), arrives to do the job of making sure the boys acquire the skills to pass the Oxbridge exams. His methods contrast with those of Hector, who says: “Exams are the enemy of education.”
Although our sympathies are with Hector, any of us with kids we have tried to coerce into study will understand the need to acquire the techniques essential to survival in the real world. Life is not a play and we must hone any limited talents we have so somebody, somewhere can pay us to use them.
Tragedy ensues when Irwin takes a pillion lift on Hector’s high-powered motorbike, is injured in a crash and is then wheelchair bound. He becomes a TV history pundit and later a politician.
The eroticism snakes through the script; Hector ‘touches up’ his young charges (how acceptable would this writing be now given Operation Yewtree?) and Irwin discovers he is gay. Bennett has said in interview he finds it harder to forgive Irwin for fiddling with the boys’ minds that Hector for doing the same with their bodies. But Kate Saxon points out: “We present the play as true to its day while receiving it with the sensitivity of our day.”
The lads are truly superb, particularly Posner (Steven Roberts) – “I’m Jewish, small, homosexual and from Sheffield!” – undeniably sexy Dakin (Kedar Williams-Stirling) and Rudge who wins his Oxbridge place on the strength of his sporting ability. In adult life we hear he papers the Yorkshire Dales with affordable homes.
The script is just bloomin’ marvellous. We hacks sitting in the stalls soon realised why we labour on our council/court copy for local newspapers instead of being lauded as leading playwrights and interviewed by Melvyn Bragg on Radio 4.
The evening is thought-provoking, downright hilarious, moving and riveting. You lean forward in your seat to catch every word. The History Boys was voted ‘Nation’s Favourite Play’ in a poll undertaken by English Touring Theatre, beating Hamlet and Stoppard’s Arcadia to the top slot.
Sorry, I’ve got to mention all the lads by name: Scripps (Alex Hope); Rudge (David Young); Lockwood (Patrick McNamee); Timms (Joshua Mayes-Cooper), he of the lovely red hair, and Akthar (Sid Sagar). Susan Twist as regular history teacher Mrs Lintott is pretty terrific too.