The History Boys - UK Tour Review

Alan Bennett's The History Boys has had a sell out run in London and is now playing to packed houses all over the UK prior to its Broadway debut. So with all of this buzz surrounding the play, you would expect something quite special. Luckily, it does not disappoint.

 

The play is set in a Grammar School in the 1980's and highlights some of the snobbery surrounding university places. We meet the pupils and the teachers and explore their worlds, from class room to staff room. Posner is a short, confused lad unsure of where he is going in the world. The arrival of the new History teacher, Mr Irwin awakens his senses as he realises that he is gay. He confides in the young teacher and awaits a response. The theme of unrequited love is also evident as Posner follows and admires Dakin- a strong, assertive student who is dating the headmaster's secretary.

 

 

This may sound like a soap opera, but The History Boys is so much more than that. Through the eyes of these pupils we see how education has changed. But are these changes made to benefit the students themselves or is achievement purely linked to funding? The play also asks the question what makes a good teacher? Is it someone who inspires you or the person who 'trains' you to answer exam questions in a robotic-like but effective way? One student spends so much time and energy jumping through the hoops designed to get him into Oxford University that when he gets in, he thinks to himself "What now….?"  and subsequently leaves.

 

 

The Headmaster of the school has his sights firmly on attracting funding to the school. This means that 'inspiring' and 'creative' are to be replaced by 'spoon feeding' education to the boys in bite size chunks. With the shadow of Thatcherite policies hanging over the staffroom, it's a case of out with the old school. Hector, the delightfully dotty teacher whom the boys adore feels the strain as Mr Irwin hovers over his classroom looking for a weakness, ready to replace him. Hector provides the boys with a voice but also carries a secret which, once revealed will impact on everyone within the school.

 

 

The History Boys - UK Tour ReviewThe performances here are faultless. Desmond Barrit steals the show as Hector. Even when this character does something that you do not agree with, you still completely empathise with him due to the actor's stunning portrayal. Diane Fletcher plays Mrs Lintott whom the boys have dubbed "Totty." This marvellous actress imbues this character with a sense of realism and sarcastic wit in the face of ridiculous and damaging education policies. Tobias Menzies plays Mr Irwin like a cross between Alan Partridge and Tony Parsons. His teacher is multi faceted in the extreme; strong and witty in the classroom, wilting wall flower outside of it. Of the boys, Steven Webb is incredibly poignant as musically minded Posner. But Jamie King also gives a commanding turn as the predatory pupil, Dakin.

 

 

At times this production does feel a tad pretentious. One scene which is spoken in 'comedy French' is incredibly laboured and at times alienating for many of the audience as the only people laughing are language students or French speakers. A scene like this means some members of the audience are chuckling loudly regardless for fear of being outed as someone who flunked French! Also there is the odd occasion where Bennett's writing is so loaded with references to English lessons of old that you do start to glaze over as the sign post for the next one appears. But, this is only a minor flaw, but one which will be very evident, I imagine when this production hits Broadway unless some minor changes are made. But there are still plenty of laughs to be had a few tears to be shed, terrific trademarks of Bennett's wonderful work.

 

 

The emotional core of the play remains intact, thankfully. These characters are so real and fully realised that you cannot help but root for them in the face of adversity. On one level they all seem lucky as they are in a world that many envy. But beneath the façade of a grammar school attracting money from all quarters lies the reality. Inside, the school is like any other as exams, inspections, and General Studies halt the pupils rather than help them.

 

 

Nicholas Hytner directs with real flair as he adds video projection and music from the 1980's to the proceedings realising that this is a static play requiring these additions to make the narrative flow more readily. He also illustrates the feeling of school being one of the best times of your life. This wonderfully evocative play gives you chance to revisit those heady days and I, for one am glad that I was able to sit, smiling at the back of the class again.

 

 

B+

 

 

 

 

 

 

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From This Author Glenn Meads

Living in Manchester, Glenn writes for whatsonstage.com covering Salford, Manchester and Bolton. He also teaches Media, Film and English. His favourite writers are Arthur Miller, (read more...)

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