The History Boys

Alan Bennett's comedy of education and growing up

June 15, 2010
Oxford Playhouse, 14-19 June 2010
Alan Bennett’s much-loved play-turned-film makes a very welcome trip to Oxford this week as one of many stops in a West Yorkshire Playhouse Production tour. Given the success of previous national productions and the film version of 2006, the pressure to live up to expectations is high to say the least. Thankfully, this adaptation, directed by Christopher Luscombe, is an absolute gem.

On the surface, the plot may not seem like much: the focus is a 1980s A-Level class of bright boys at a grammar school in Sheffield, whose headmaster is desperate for them to get into Oxbridge. However, what materialises is a slick script that is full of charm, wit, laughs, poignancy, song and thought-provoking debates. Combine Bennett’s remarkable writing with a highly compelling cast and you can gain a sense of the depth of the play’s power. Each of the twelve-strong cast is superb, but a particular stand-out is James Byng as the fragile Posner – a musically-gifted, impressionable Jewish boy coming to terms with his homosexuality. Byng’s talent is astounding, from comic, camp sketches to tear-jerking songs, to the occasional intense, expressive glance more articulate than words. Kyle Redwood-Jones holds his own as the popular, confident and handsome Dakin who wins the hearts of both classmates and teachers. Gerard Murphy, meanwhile, puts in a powerful performance as the controversial, larger-than-life Hector with a love for language and the boys he teaches.

Some directorial touches are worth mentioning, in particular the use of music excerpts to signify the passing of time (Coldplay’s 2001 track ‘Clocks’ opens the play, before a series of 80s music extracts as the story flashes back to the school days). A slowly revolving stage is employed to enable perspectives from every angle – something that generally works well, although occasionally means that the speaker has his or her back to us and the voice becomes relatively muffled. There are merely two backdrops for scenery: the classroom walls and the staff room. This works well in ensuring that scene changes are slick and the action runs smoothly. Indeed, with the play lasting over two and a half hours, one could be forgiven for fearing it might drag. Luckily, though, the very opposite was true and several of the rapturous audience members were up on their feet at the curtain. In short, Luscombe’s production of Bennett’s renowned play leaves you gripped throughout and captures an astonishing array of emotions: humour, sadness, philosophical musings and sometimes some outside your comfort zone. Thoroughly recommended.

October 7, 2009
OFS Studio, 6 - 10 Oct 2009
Last night, The Oxford Triptych Theatre premiered its production of The History Boys to a packed audience at the OFS Studio. It is an amateur production but don’t let that put you off; it’s a surprisingly good one.

Written by Alan Bennett, the play is set in a Sheffield Grammar school during the eighties. The eponymous boys have all done better than expected in the A-level exams and are spending a final term at school cramming for Oxbridge. They are originally taught by the much-loved and dedicated Hector, a teacher who does not believe in exam training and prefers to encourage the boys to share his love of poetry and language. One of the boys likes to sing whilst accompanied by his friend on piano. Hector encourages this and even has the boys put money in a tin if Hector successfully identifies the song.

Unfortunately this free-range form of teaching does nothing to endear Hector to the league-table-obsessed head teacher (Brian Conroy), who drafts in Irwin (Christopher Adams), a young graduate who knows what the selectors will be looking for and encourages the boys accordingly.

Whilst it is undeniably a rites of passage tale, it gives you so much more to think about: the value and meaning of education; the boundaries a teacher must not cross. In Hector’s case, he crosses them. Hector likes to give different boys a ride home on his motorbike each evening. The boys know that this will involve a quick grope at the traffic lights; but they seem to accept this as a fair price to pay for Hector’s unconventional teaching methods and they are happy to acquiesce – the wonderfully gentle and sexually confused Posner even complains that he has never been the pillion rider of choice; accordingly he feels left out and resentful.

The personal characterizations by the young actors were all excellent – Posner (Joe Harrison) and Dakin (James Corrigan) stole the show, but they were only able to do so thanks to the generous support they received from the rest of the team; which was no less than Bennett’s superb dialogue deserves.

The only slight problem was the venue itself. The OFS Studio is small and the seating cramped; I didn't find it a comfortable experience and by the interval the pins and needles had set in. If you can live with that, though, then do go and see The History Boys: it is a real treat.
In a nutshell, eight students decide to apply to Oxbridge for History, their headmaster hires an Oxford graduate to get them up to the mark: Irwin tells the boys to lie in their essays, to style villains as misunderstood, and to throw in facts about foreskins. Yet as an antidote to Irwin, Hector teaches the boys poetry, film and ‘silliness’ - useless knowledge. His lessons are a delight: enactments of a French boudoir, ardent singing and camp performances of scenes from old films.

Each boy has a different character. Posner is the innocent choirboy-type in love with the popular Dakin, who is sleeping with the school secretary. Rudge is thick but still wants to get into Christ Church. Another has taken up religion to make himself more interesting.

The play is remarkably similar to the film, to the extent that Irwin and Mrs Lintott looked and acted as though they had been lifted directly from the film set, and almost all the lines were identical. This is perhaps a mark of the fact that Alan Bennet directed the film and would have presumably wanted to keep as much of the original script as possible. Yet the play is just as moving and perhaps more poignant at times. Irwin’s and the boys' asides to the audience were more personal and the brilliant one-liners rang just as humorously. More restricted than the film as regards staging, the entire play was set in a school room, meaning the words of the play had an even greater resonance – one must imagine the context of Dakin’s battlefield metaphor...

The play leaves certain things with different people; my favourite is Hektor’s love of compound adjectives, especially Hardyesque adjectives beginning with un- . It definitely makes an audience reassess the true value of education and the role of teachers; and at a time when pressure on league tables in schools and a restricted national curriculum are causing more and more teachers to leave the profession, this is a message which is dearly needed.
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