Back in the 1980s if a sixth former had achieved good ‘A’ Level results and wanted to be an Oxbridge scholar, they would do an extra term at their school preparing themselves for the rigours of the ‘seventh term entrance exam’. Obviously, this was quite as stressful time for young people and this is the premise of Alan Bennett’s play “The History Boys” currently on tour around the UK and which I was lucky enough to catch at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley.
In a northern town, eight bright young lads have received the results and are being groomed by their headmaster (Christopher Ettridge) for Oxbridge. The boys are planning to major in history and this means that they have an extra term with their wonderful History teacher Mrs Lintott (Susan Twist) and their General Studies master, the maverick Hector (Richard Hope) who believes in education for its own sake and has a very odd taste in transportation. In an effort to focus the boys – and improve the school’s league table position – the Headmaster brings in Irwin (Mark Field) an Oxford educated history teacher who thinks in terms of essays, soundbites and the effects of being contrary to conventional thought as a way of getting noticed in exams. The differences in teaching styles are bound to cause issues amongst the staff, something the headmaster is probably looking forward to.
As well as all the preparation for Oxbridge, the boys have their own adolescence to get through – thanks to hormones and overstretched imaginations, teenage boys can be an absolute nightmare. There’s Dakin (Matthew Durkan on the evening I saw the show), the good looking (and he knows it) suave, confident ‘leader’ of the group trying to please the new teacher whilst being in a relationship with the lovely Fiona (Melody Brown). Watching him closely and with loving eyes, we have small, young in mind and on the cusp of openly acknowledging who he is, Posner (Steven Roberts). Then there is the devoted Christian Scripps (Alex Hope) who has basically promised himself to God, making the greatest sacrifice someone his age can, if he can get into Oxford and Rudge (David Young) a taciturn, monosyllabic, golf and rugby playing chap who everyone is prepared to write off as a genuine candidate for Oxbridge. The other three (though there may be four when you see it) boys are Akthar (Sid Sagar), Timms (Joshua Mayes-Cooper) and Lockwood (Patrick McNamee), not live wires like the others but all of them desperately wanting to achieve their goal – a place in Oxbridge – even if they are not sure exactly why.
Three teachers – with very individual styles of imparting knowledge to their young charges – a headmaster with an agenda of his own and three months to get ready for the most important exam of their lives, it’s no wonder the boys let off steam with songs, dances and re-enacting scenes from famous movies as they discover more about themselves, their teachers and the reality of life outside the school walls.
I never saw the original National Theatre production of “The History Boys” in 2004 and, in fact, had only seen the film adaptation up to last night. If I’m honest I was a bit apprehensive about seeing this production. The film is so fantastic with an absolutely stellar cast that I didn’t think a touring production would be able to achieve the same standard. I was, as you would expect, wrong about that.
When we entered the auditorium and saw the wonderful classroom set by Designer Libby Watson – complete with motorbike hanging ominously over everything whilst listening to some classic 80s tracks, my companion and I thought that this was going to be good. The lights dimmed and Irwin came on the stage to give his opening monologue and my attention was fixed for the next two hours – in fact this was a show where I think an interval could have been dispensed with, I would have stayed with it all the way. Alan Bennett’s script is totally absorbing and his use of wordplay to create and bring to life his characters in this show is superb – I got so involved I wanted to go and join the discussion about the Holocaust. The quality writing was matched by the acting which was first rate all the way through and Kate Saxon’s direction was spot on – I loved the use of more classic tracks to transition between scenes. The entire cast were fantastic from start to finish and, although it’s difficult, I’m going to pick out some of my favourites from among them.
Richard Hope gave an outstanding performance as Hector – the sort of teacher we all would have loved to have had. Firm but fair, not afraid to through a book as well as a quip at an errant boy – I loved his description of Timms as a ‘Foul, festering, grubby-minded little trollop!’. Hector is totally dedicated to his vocation – even though he sometimes questions it – and makes no allowance for the world that is changing around him as accountants and middle managers take over the running of schools and league table positions become more important than teaching. Hector was always fighting against the Irwin’s of the profession, and this was wonderfully played out by Richard and Mark Field in a lovely couple of two-hander scenes. I’m also going to mention Susan Twist – who for me was truly superb in her role as Ms Lintott – particularly her breathtaking performance in the exam practice scene where she finally explains what history is with these wonderful words – ‘History is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men. What is history? History is women following behind with the bucket.’
Of the boys, Matthew Durkan was excellent as Dakin, playing him with the right amount of cockiness as he interacted with his fellow classmates – particularly his analogy to the first world war of his relationship with Fiona. In his interactions with Irwin, Matthew managed to establish the feelings he was going through wanting the approval of his teacher so much and for reasons that took a while to become clear to him. My absolute favourite among the boys was Steven Roberts as Posner, a character that summed himself up with the immortal words ‘I’m a Jew… I’m small… I’m homosexual… and I live in Sheffield’ (Yes I know there is a final part of that line but I can’t write it here). Steven could have overplayed Posner’s feelings for Dakin making him creepy and irritating but he didn’t, and Posner came over as a teenage boy in love for the first time, who just happened to have a lovely singing voice and the ability to speedily locate words in a dictionary.
“The History Boys” was last year voted the ‘Nation’s Favourite play’ in a nationwide poll and I can really understand why. Any show that can mix The Eurythmics with excerpts from ‘Brief Encounter’ and poetry by A. E. Houseman is going to be something special and although it is set in the bygone age of the seventh-term exams “The History Boys” manages to be a fresh today as when the National first produced it. An absolutely must see show.
Review by Terry Eastham
Trailer for The History Boys, UK Tour 2015
Winner of over 30 theatre awards including Olivier, Evening Standard, Critics’ Circle, South Bank Show, New York Drama Critics’ Circle and Tony Awards for Best New Play, Alan Bennett’s masterpiece was voted the nation’s favourite play in a recent national survey.
Set in the 1980s, The History Boys is a comic drama about adolescent schoolboys. An unruly bunch of bright, funny sixth-formers in pursuit of sex, sport and a place at university. A maverick English teacher at odds with the young and shrewd supply teacher. A headmaster obsessed with results and a history teacher who thinks he’s a fool.
Staffroom rivalry and the anarchy of adolescence provoke insistent questions about history and how you teach it; about education and its purpose.
Presented in a brand new touring production from the producers of Avenue Q UK Tour, Spring Awakening UK Tour and Seussical, West End – this hilarious national treasure hits all the right spots for a good night out.
‘Pass it on boys… that’s the game I wanted you to learn… pass it on’
Recommended age 14+
Running time: 2h 20m (inc interval)
Book tickets http://www.atgtickets.com/venues/the-churchill-theatre-bromley/
Tuesday 28th April 2015