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A CurtainUp Multiple Review
The History Boys
Editor's Update, January 6, 2007: This play has taken on multiple lives. Since our review of the Broadway transfer with its original London cast, it's been made into a film (also with the original cast). Now it's getting its first actual West End production and so, Lizzie Loveridge has gone back to visit it for the third time and her initial double review has turned into a triple-decker, starting with her first review and rounding things out with the West End review. Her Three Visits to The History Boys follows the Broadway Production review in the gray box below.
Three Visits to The History Boys by Lizzie Loveridge
A central theme of Bennett's play is the purpose of education. Is it to pass exams or is it to encourage a desire for learning? Bennett's gentle wit means his points are made effectively but there is plenty to smile at in his plays, they are very pleasurable. Bennett's work is less obviously intellectual than Stoppard's, but his plays have that delightful, dry Yorkshire humorous ability to winkle out and expose the ridiculous in ordinary situations. Bennett's secondary theme is more contentious: dealing with the relationship between pedagogy and pederasty in this all boys school.
The play opens with a flashback. One of today's breed of television presenter historians, Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), now in a wheelchair, recalls his time as a teacher in a Northern grammar school in the 1980s. Irwin has been recruited by the Headmaster (Clive Merrison) to nurture a group of boys with a view to Oxbridge Entrance. These boys have an unorthodox teacher of General Studies, Hector, who takes a broader view of his teaching role than the headmaster would like. These boys are clever, witty, attractive. Dakin (Dominic Cooper) is the leader and most sought after of the group. Posner (Samuel Barnett) is artistic, musically talented and gay. Rudge (Russell Tovey) is the odd one out, a brilliant sportsman but less gifted intellectually.
A French lesson is interrupted by the Headmaster, showing the new member of staff round the school, but in this instance the boys are practising their French by pretending to be client and whores in a Parisian brothel. Some quick thinking, helped by the Headmaster's ineptitude at the French language, results in the scene interpretation shifting quickly to an army hospital in Ypres in the First World War. How else to explain one boy's separation from his trousers?
Although the play is mostly set in the 1980s there are details from the future. A reference to league tables, an invention of the 1990s, to measure school performance motivates the Headmaster. Staffroom conversations between Mrs Lintott (Frances de la Tour) and Hector or Irwin show the widening gulf between the politics of educational measurement and teaching as a vocation. The head, whose self serving stupidity is the butt for much of Bennett's humour, says at one point, "I know he's inspirational but how do I quantify inspiration?" He is the inheritor of Oscar Wilde's comment about those that know "the price of everything and the value of nothing". When Rudge wins his place at Oxford and the assumption is that his sporting ability has swung the place, we are told not so but that it is his relative being a college servant which decides. This is Bennett's way of introducing the struggle by Oxbridge colleges to appear more democratic in their selection process by taking fewer from private schools and privileged backgrounds. The television historian scenes are also dazzling, Bennett plays with us as Irwin says with a straight face that, "The loss of liberty is the price we pay for freedom" and that "Archaeology is the closest history comes to shopping".
The performances from all are nothing short of wonderful. Dominic Cooper is maturing into an excellent actor but he is still able to convince, playing characters seven or eight years younger than his chronological age. Samuel Barnett, too as the sensitive Posner, who sings outstandingly, and for whom the discovery of his sexuality impacts on his young life. Richard Griffiths is a gargantuan figure; he conveys a delicacy of purpose as the motor bike riding teacher, unconventional and the kind of teacher whose lessons every pupil will remember for a lifetime. Frances de la Tour is well cast as the observer, the female teacher in this all male environment, sardonic, perceptive, witty. Stephen Campbell Moore as Irwin, who is only a little older than the boys has the reticence of a new teacher. He is somewhat overawed by Hector, but it is through his voice that the narrative takes shape. Aside, an ongoing competition between the boys and Hector to win a pot of money by replaying famous clips from film of the 1940s and 1950s gives Bennett the opportunity to have some of the boys delightfully recreating scenes from classic films such as Brief Encounter. Hector of course knows not only the title, the year, but also the stars, the director, the screenwriter of them all.
In between scenes in the school, black and white film is used of the boys in everyday situations giving a good feel for the historical period. The conventional school sets, Hector's film poster filled classroom, the sterile grey of the staff room, are dominated by a ceiling full of rows of overhanging lights like desks in a schoolroom. The direction is so good, the writing so natural, that I believed completely in Bennett's characters, I wasn't watching a play but real teachers and pupils. I can see no reason why The History Boys should not transfer to a long and successful West End run.
The History Boys
Written by Alan Bennett
Directed by Nicholas Hytner
Starring: Richard Griffiths, Frances de la Tour, Stephen Campbell Moore
With: Sacha Dhawan, Samuel Anderson, Dominic Cooper, Andrew Knott, Samuel Barnett, Russell Tovey, Jamie Parker, James Corden, Clive Merrison
Designer: Bob Crowley
Lighting Designer: Mark Henderson
Sound: Colin Pink
Music: Richard Sisson
Running time: Two hours fifty minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to 2nd September 2004.
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 26th May 2004 performance at the Lyttelton, Royal National Theatre
The History Boys Second Time Around
Prior to its opening in New York next year, the touring production of Alan Bennett's play, The History Boys is returning to the Lyttelton at the National Theatre where it is running through 1st of February with a different cast from the one which opened the play last year. As Richard Griffiths is currently in Heroes at the Wyndhams, Des Barritt takes over the main role of Hector, the inspirational teacher with a sexual agenda. I was pleasantly surprised to see that Des Barritt is as likeable as Richard Griffiths was in the part because the play depends on our having some sympathy for Hector. Diane Fletcher very ably takes over Mrs Lintott's role and Tobias Menzies plays a more vulnerable Irwin, the teacher brought in to coach the boys for Oxbridge entrance. Jamie King is excellent as Dakin, certainly as good as Dominic Cooper, and Steven Webb as Posner is more openly camp than the first boy in the part, Samuel Barnett. Thomas Morrison struck me as the young Bennett
The play altered little for me on second viewing; I enjoyed it just as much. However it is almost half an hour shorter but I think the cuts do not materially affect the play. For instance the boys only play one film clip for Horace to guess rather than two, there is only one boy put through his Oxford interview paces rather than two. I reflected on Irwin's mission with the boys for them to stand out in the Oxford and Cambridge examination with a slightly different view of history from the conventional. I wondered if Alan Bennett was applying this by trying to let us see the man behind the sexual offender, a different take on paedophilia. Is Horace a monster abusing his position with children or are 17 to 18 year olds knowing and willing? The debate on these issues will continue.
The History Boys Moves to the West End and Lizzie Loveridge Visits it a Third Time
The National Theatre's acclaimed and award winning production of Alan Bennett's The History Boys has moved into the Wyndham's for its first run in the West End proper. The principal roles of the school teachers are recast but three of the boys reprise their UK touring original roles, Thomas Morrison as Scripps, Steven Webb as Posner and Marc Elliott as Akthar.
The play is set to become a modern classic although on the third viewing I am still no clearer as to whether it is set in the league table driven 1980s, the 1950s when Bennett himself and his sixth form generation were striving for Oxbridge entrance, the 1970s when it seems some of the play's references allude to, or indeed the 1990s when Oxford and Cambridge became aware of their elitist image and the need to accept students, like Rudge, from poorer educational backgrounds. Irwin's subsequent career as a television historian and later as a political adviser place the previous events at the school in the late 1980s and the programme states that the action takes place in a Grammar School in the North in the 1980s, although we know that most of these selective Grammar Schools became Comprehensives by the mid 1970s.
I was struck this time by three approaches to education, Mrs Lintott's (Isla Blair) solid foundation teaching the facts and Hector's (Stephen Moore) wider interpretation of knowledge as distinct from education needed for examination success. Then there is Irwin's meretricious manipulation of an accepted premise in order to impress the dons and stand out as an original thinker and worthy of a university place. Bennett writes in the theatre programme about how he himself played this game in order to secure a scholarship at Oxford and he makes it clear he does not think it was clever or honest.
Stephen Moore is less charismatic as Hector, more believable in some ways as the man saddened and limited by his choice of career. He is more elegiac than flamboyant and inspirational. Isla Blair is softer as Mrs Lintott and we see her warmth in a filmed lesson with younger boys putting up their hands to answer her questions. The headmaster's role, played by William Chubb, is as self serving as ever. Ben Barnes as Dakin seems more expedient as he experiments and manipulates Irwin. Orlando Wells is excellent as the geeky and underconfident Irwin who has lied to secure his job and who contrasts nicely with his obvious command in his later employment.
The staging at Wyndham's is very similar to the Lytellton, the National's proscenium arched stage, and of course we realise that each new casting requires a different black and white film to be made to show between scenes which contributes to an authentic school atmosphere. The scenes where the boys recreate the Parisian brothel which rapidly has to segue into a First World War battlefield hospital or when they replay scenes from classic films are examples of the very best stage comedy. Now I need to see the filmed version of The History Boys to compare its long term impact.
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide