Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Most Successful Play of the Decade Returns

The History Boys

Theatre Royal Bath/ West Yorkshire Playhouse , New Theatre, Cardiff , March 19, 2011
The History Boys by Theatre Royal Bath/ West Yorkshire Playhouse Aleks Sierz in “Rewriting the Nation”, his hot-off-the-press summary of the last decade’s new drama, has some harsh words for “the History Boys”. “A fairy tale about gay teachers and gay pupils” he writes “that bears no relation to the real world.” That is true. Alan Bennett’s group of eight Oxbridge candidates speak fluent French, make ringing statements about art and literature, sing Gracie Fields’ songs. As characters they tend to have attributes rather than be dramatic agents.

But “the History Boys” is still a phenomenon. First it is a rare play that gets a heavyweight revival just seven years on. The Cardiff audience, including a large and reverential cohort of Chepstow GCSE pupils, evidently adored it. And as a play that has reportedly brought five million pounds to the Royal National Theatre that is in itself some service to the cause of theatre.

Some scenes in the first act do hang heavy. These strange schoolboys engage in parodies-cum-quizzes of “Now Voyager” and Brief Encounter.” The all-French scene culminates in a graphically simulated orgy that is hilarious but never happened in any schoolroom. There is all the wit and polish to be expected from a skilled theatre writer. “This is history, not histrionics ” Sierz concludes that the play is “entertaining, but complacent, untruthful and unchallenging.” It’s a fair view but “the History Boys” beats with a powerful and passionate authorial heart.

“Paradox works well” says Ben Lambert’s new temporary teacher Irwin in his opening lines. History is to be deployed with a flamboyant aggression. “We commemorate in order to forget.” Snappy paradox has virtue. It sounds good. “True? What that's got to do with it?” he retorts to George Banks' bright student, sexually versatile Dakin. Scholarship here is just one more competitive weapon in the cause of career advancement. Irwin constantly reminds his cohort of eight 1980's Sheffield comprehensive pupils, and rightly, that they are up against others who are travelled, are more privileged, are plain richer.

It is tribute to the lack of sentimentality in Alan Bennett's writing that he shows that it works. Irwin's methodology for his pupils may be scholarship as a kind of preening display. “History is not a matter of conviction. It's performance.” But he does the business. He gets his less advantaged pupils to the Holy Grail, admission to Oxbridge. Of course cunningly the nineteen-eighties’ setting too is itself history. Half the gifted teenagers now have lost interest in the dreaming spires. A hard-done-by generation sees rip-off rents and a lousy clubbing scene.

Like the best of teachers Irwin does get them thinking. “I didn't know you were allowed to call art and literature into question.” Against this view of education as pure instrumentalism stands Philip Franks' noble, hopeless and morally compromised Hector. “Meretricious” he protests “eye-catching, showy, false.” A particularly spiky scene has his protesting that the high points of lyrical poetry are reduced to “gobbits”, useful little quotations to be brought out at the right time. The boys produce their sparky quotations. Sartre, Wittgenstein- a reference to another schoolteacher drummed out for behaviour of excess- are cited. It does not matter that no-one has read their books. That Ludwig, he doesn't half give good quote.

Hector deplores the “Carry On” films entering the curriculum in a fake guise as social history. For him the classics of literature are monuments, to be learned by heart, to become consciousness itself. They are the true history that links one human heart to another across the chasms of time and location. The “Drummer Hodge” scene, beautifully played by Philip Franks and Rob Delaney's Posner, has not dated one tiny bit. No scene in theatre has ever achieved a more poignant portrayal of sheer human isolation.

Bennett, the history don manqué, wears his learning lightly. History swoops in and out of the script. Maybe, muses Dakin, it was just the condition of Lord Halifax's teeth on a particular day in 1940 that prevented Britain from losing the Second World War. In the end says Peter McGovern's Rudge “History, it’s just one f----ing thing after another.” Not so, of course, is the posture of Hector. It is not the succession of events but the links between them, the accepted links between them that Irwin is happy to tear up. Inheritance of a common culture predicates a common ethics. Rock the common culture, the play indicates, and a common ethics will shudder.

Director Christopher Luscombe has dispensed with the video that was used in Nicholas Hytner's original production. In truth all that location footage set in Rievaulx Abbey had an air of ostentation to it. Here Ben Lambert sits in his wheelchair and states “we are at Rievaulx.” That is quite sufficient.

The script may have Gracie Fields but it has no two-tone, Jam or the Clash. Sound designer Mic Pool has pumped in some energy with snatches of the Pet Shop Boys and others between scenes. Janet Bird’s design cleverly uses a rotating stage to bring movement to the classroom scenes. “The History Boys” is a great play for young actors and the production’s texture is enriched by Harry Waller’s God-burdened Scripps and Christopher Keegan’s ever perky Timms.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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