The Theatreguide.London Review
[Reviewed in original Lyttelton production - scroll down for our return visit in 2007]
Alan Bennett's latest play is, like all his best work, a sweetly comic look at the little lives, little joys and little sadnesses of little people. If it also provokes thought on a number of moral and philosophical issues, that just enriches this quietly satisfying work.
For The History Boys Bennett returns to the setting he first looked at three decades ago in his comedy 40 Years On, a boys' school, as the final year students at a not-particularly-prestigious provincial school are being groomed for university.
While one teacher, played with her patented wry understatement by Frances de la Tour, ably provides them with all the book learning they'll need, another, the loveable Richard Griffiths, subverts things by filling them full of what he happily calls useless stuff - poetry, old movies, creativity and the things that make up a sense of culture.
But Clive Merrison's by-the-book headmaster distrusts anything he can't measure and test, and he brings in a Young Turk (Stephen Campbell Moore) to coach the boys on the tricks of exam-taking and interviewing, with the dream of getting them all into Oxford or Cambridge.
And so, without preaching, Bennett lets us watch as styles and philosophies of teaching clash, views of history and other subjects are debated, and fairly important questions are raised, all without threatening the generally warm tone and frequently hilarious comedy.
And meanwhile, more human stories emerge and involve us. Inevitably, one of the boys has a crush on another (though he and all the others handle it remarkably well), and perhaps almost as inevitably, one or more of the teachers are tempted to cross a taboo line. Career decisions are made or forced on both boys and adults, and Bennett characteristically makes us realise how much all this matters to them even while we are laughing at how trivial it all is.
Things get a bit melodramatic and more than a bit soppy toward the end, but that doesn't seriously spoil either the fun, the warmth or the thought-provoking quality of the play.
Nicholas Hytner directs with a full appreciation of the play's delicate power, keeping things moving with the aid of Ben Taylor's witty video interludes.
All the actors playing the adult characters are first-rate, with de la Tour standing out simply because both her character and her performance sneak up on you while Griffiths and the others seem to be holding centre stage.
Among the boys, Samuel Barnett as the most sensitive and fragile of the group, Dominic Cooper as the most controlled and confident, and Russell Tovey as the simplest stand out, each by gradually and subtly letting us discover that the labels I've just applied are misleading and that there's more to each of them than first appears.
You don't go to Alan Bennett for flash or high passions. You go for warmth, comedy and quiet insights into the little but important lives of little but important people. The History Boys delivers all this in a most satisfying and entertaining manner.
January 2007: After touring the country, winning all the awards on Broadway and being filmed, Alan Bennett's sweet little comedy-drama finally makes it to the West End, with a wholly new cast and some subtle changes in focus and tone, but with all of its quiet strength and attractiveness intact.
Double back to our original review above for a plot outline. With Nicholas Hytner's direction 'recreated' by Simon Fox, the adult roles have all been somewhat softened around the edges. Stephen Moore's Hector is less confrontationally iconoclastic than Richard Griffiths, William Chubb's headmaster less ramrod-martinet, Isla Blair's history teacher less acidic, Orlando Wells' exam-taking coach less self-confident.
The new interpretations all work, though one does occasionally feel that this Hector has wandered into his teaching style rather than having chosen it.
One result of that softening is that the play's debate on teaching styles and philosophies drops into the background. Much more than in the original production, this is now a play about the boys.
And what comes across, even more than their frequently comic adolescent angst, is the sheer joy of learning. More than any schoolboys I've ever known (or been), these kids love the classroom, the sheer excitement of thinking, of talking up (and talking back), of discovering and inventing themselves.
A small scene I didn't even remember from the original, in which Hector gives Posner (the gay one) a tutorial in the poetry of Thomas Hardy, is now a breathtakingly beautiful celebration of the wonder of language and of the communion of teacher and student.
The new cast of boys are as impressive and attractive as their predecessors, with Steven Webb's Posner, Ben Barnes' Dakin (the confident one) and Thomas Morrison's Scripps (the religious one) standing out.
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Review - History Boys - National Theatre 2004 - 2008