Theatre Review: The History Boys

Words: Tanya Raybould
Wednesday 11 October 2017
reading time: min, words

Voted the nation's favourite play in a 2013 poll, Alan Bennett's 2004 stage classic set in a Sheffield grammar school in the 1980s remains both funny and thought-provoking.


We all had them, those teachers we loved and those we hated. It was the way they taught that distinguished them. I could tell you every detail of my history teacher's own life, but nothing about which George was which in European history, yet another got us to reference every lyric to fact in Billy Joel's 'We Didn't Start The Fire' and I could probably still reel them off today.

A combination of comedy and pathos, the play's subject matter begs the question; should education be pragmatic or idealistic? Does education belong to the brain or to the heart? It's a battle of hearts and minds. Preparing for the Oxford and Cambridge entrance examinations, on the one level the story tells of the contrasting styles of teaching. The ageing eccentric Hector delights in knowledge for its own sake, believing 'exams are the enemy of education', teaching his pupils to be thoughtful, but Headmaster Lintott wants the school to move up the academic league table. Enter supply teacher, Irwin, a more cynical character with a ruthless style of teaching, who guides the students to be educated, pass exams and win scholarships.

Delve deeper and it explores a complex web of sex, the energy of adolesense, homosexuality and sexual abuse. It can make you feel uncomfortable at times. First perceptions are that the boys taught by two very different teachers, yet essentially both are grooming them in different ways. One plays with their minds, the other with their bodies. In todays times, should we be laughing at the touching of a school boys genitals by an appreciative teacher? Director Immi Lea has kept the story as truthful and authentic to the original text as possible, but you feel it sits more comfortably in the 1950s, rather than the era, which tinges the comedy with self-consciousness, yet you'll still fall for the plays charms in the way you might with any coming of age stories such as Goodbye Mr Chips or Dead Poets Society, thanks to heavy dollops of tenderness and vunerability, and yet its so much more than that. From Thatcherite values we see how time has given way to a more results driven society.

When the original production opened at the National Theatre in London back in 2004, it launched the careers of James Cordon, Dominic Cooper, Samual Barnett and Jamie Parker. This production boasts some exceptional actors and if you like future star spotting, look no further than ex West Notts College student, Daniel Salmon, as Posner who has the line of the show 'I'm a Jew, I'm small, I'm homosexual and I live in Sheffield. I'm fucked' and Lewis Fernandez, another protege from the Nottingham Actors Workshop, as Dakin. I've never seen the film, but I can't imagine anyone fitting the characters as this talented cast who shine when each given wry internal monologues.

Director Imme Lea also designed the set, with all the drama taking place in the classroom. A couple of chairs and a cabinet to the side of the stage serve as the headmasters study. It's basic, but with such rich dialogue from Bennett, you need nothing more.

Scenes are punctuated with blasts from the soundtrack of the 80's. Blondie, The Pet Shop Boys, Madness and co get an outing as footage of the boys, filmed at Nottingham's Bromley Library is projected on the rear wall, holding the audiences attention.

Running at three hours, a play can be bum-numbingly long, but The History Boys is guaranteed to have you captivated.


The History Boys runs until 14th October at the Lace Market Theatre.

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