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Extra Classes For The History Boys

West End audiences will get an opportunity to take their seats in the classroom with the History Boys for a limited run (to April 17) at the Wyndham's Theatre from January 3rd (following 2 weeks of previews which began on December 21). Simon Cox's recreation of Nicholas Hytner's original staging of Alan Bennett's multi-award winning play (6 Tony Awards, 5 Drama Desk Awards, 4 Outer Critics Circle Awards in addition to the Best Play accolades at the Evening Standard and Olivier Awards in the UK) comes to the West End with a huge reputation built by successful runs at The National Theatre, on Broadway, on film and two UK tours. And the reputation is thoroughly deserved - this play is Alan Bennett's master work.

The play's hype boasts that it deals with "staff-room rivalry, the anarchy of adolescence and the purpose of education". But it is far more than that. Bennett's artistry, building a framework upon several layers of sub-text, has created a work that is riotously funny, nostalgic, emotional and thought-provoking. Pitting the ambitions of youth against the cynicism of middle age, he examines the psychology of education through an underbelly of pent-up emotions that, when they burst through, cut like a knife. And the play strikes a chord with its audience, as the original stage production and film's star Richard Griffiths commented, because it's "about aspects of love and the heart".

In a grammar school in Sheffield in the 1980s, where the suitably dithering headmaster is obsessed with exam results and potential Oxbridge university places for his students, the play's central character, Hector, attempts to bring his own brand of learning to the classroom: "The school gives them an education. I give them the wherewithall to resist it." As he and the new supply history teacher, Irwin, try to reach through to a group of 8 sixth form boys with their conflicting styles and educational ideologies, the boys attempt to find their own way during the school year which will serve to define their lives. And everything rings true - from the mixture of naivety and growing maturity of the boys to the flaws and foibles of the two teachers whose job it is to guide the students into the realities of the world. Yet, despite all the subtlety and seriousness of the subject matter, Bennett succeeds in making his characters and his play extremely funny - highlighted by the scene where Hector attempts to improve the boys' French by getting them to role-play a scene in a bordello.

In this "new" production, which takes its place in the West End following a successful 3 month UK tour, the cast proves to be a more than adequate substitute for the original. Stephen Moore's delicately balanced Hector is totally believable, as is Orlando Wells as Irwin. Isla Blair perhaps fails to recreate the punch that Frances de la Tour provided for the original incarnation of Mrs. Lintott but she does a stalwart job nonetheless. But the real stars are the boys. Each and every character connects instantly with the audience and holds them for the entire performance. Ben Barnes provides the perfect blend of charm, arrogance and charisma that is required for the character of Dakin. And Steven Webb's Posner comes close to stealing the show. His comic timing is spot on, his singing is sweet and he gives the character the essential ingredient of pathos which makes the audience really feel for him.

Perhaps that is why the play continues to hit home with audiences - they feel for the characters and the situation. "Ask not for whom the school bell tolls: it tolls for thee."

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From This Author Robert Gould