USER (06Sep06): The History Boys by Alan Bennett
Birmingham Rep, Tuesday 5 September 2006
Alan Bennett is a much loved author and playwright and the fact that this production sold out at least a week before it opened should confirm his place as one of the most popular of story tellers. Birmingham Rep is the first stop on a 3-month national tour, which based on the capacity audience that turned out last night, is also very likely to be a sell out everywhere it plays.
The History Boys, is set in a northern grammar school of the 1980s although I suspect the characters and situations will bring back memories to anyone who passed through that form of education. Alan Bennett uses his own experiences of grammar school life in the 1950s, with their ever-present aspirations of Oxbridge to great effect. He injects just the right amount of superb one-liners that hit home at the very heart of the education system. You may however be shocked by some of the language but it is never gratuitous.
The play focuses on a small sixth form with a General Studies master who is of the old school, now approaching 60, and who questions the whole business of examinations and even the learning process itself. To this is added the young supply teacher, only a few years older than his pupils, sexually ambiguous, but who still shares the headmaster’s philosophy of targets, demarcation and getting someone to Oxbridge. The mock university entrance interview scene with its suggested topics and what not to say tells it all and emphasises the need to conform. The headmaster is terrified of anyone or anything that does not conform.
Alan Bennett comes up with often hilarious and instantly recognisable scenes from education and the questioning boys of the sixth form. The only thing missing for me was the talk of music and sport although sex did feature as an undercurrent throughout the production. Act 1 makes great use of the end of class bell to close scenes many of them short and snappy but it was Act 2 that for me flowed to its conclusion far more smoothly.
Alan Bennett uses the story within the story approach to introduce a series of touching or challenging mini-dramas as the play unfolds - Posner the boy who realises he is gay, but what should he do? Dakin the sexually motivated one and centre of attention who dates the headmaster’s secretary whilst trying to set himself up with new teacher Irwin and who also indulges in a bit of blackmail. Rudge the lad who knows he isn’t that bright but gets into Oxford because his granddad was a former college servant. Plus many more…
Brilliantly directed by Nicholas Hytner who also directed the National Theatre production the play has pace and some grit mixed with an air of change. Bob Crowley’s functional settings with added back projection in black and white of school scenes make for a fast moving production overall.
The sixth form boys are well cast and give 100% to the story. The General Studies classes including recreations of scenes from Now Voyager and Brief Encounter not to mention Wish Me Luck famously sung by Gracie Fields brought the house down. The standout performances come from Ben Barnes as Dakin and Steven Webb as Posner.
The adults are fascinating and believable, the neatly suited Stephen Moore as Hector the older teacher, loveable and still looked up to despite his fondness for groping those boys selected to ride pillion on his motorbike. Orlando Wells as Irwin the young supply teacher with old ideas who ends up as a wheelchair bound TV presenter due to a motorbike accident! Isla Blair is in great form as Dot the teacher who has seen it all before and who is now resigned to her own approaching retirement and William Chubb as the headmaster for whom getting pupils to Oxbridge is the only important thing. But only if it were that simple.