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The International Writers Magazine: Review

The History Boys by Alan Bennett
Dir: Paul Miller
Venue: Wyndhams Theatre, Charing Cross Road, London WC2H ODA
Chris Churcher

Deemed one of the most successful plays of recent years, this is the second run of Alan Bennett's The History Boys in London's West End. The first, performed at the National Theatre in 2004, transferred to Broadway where it was noted to be a phenomenally successful modern classic, and was awarded six Tony awards. On 21st December, 2007, a new cast opened at Wyndham's Theatre in Leicester Square, following the success of the film version of the play which premiered in March of that year.

The History Boys is set in a northern English grammar school and centres around the English teacher, Hector, who is enthusiastic, eccentric, even revolutionary. When Irwin, the supply teacher with a penchant for teaching histrionics rather than historical facts, begins to take some of the classes, the headmaster sees this as the opportunity to groom the pupils for Oxbridge. The play questions what is important in teaching and what it is to be a good teacher. Although it is set in the early 1980s, it addresses the contemporary theme of our obsession with league tables and examination results. It also explores budding homosexuality, as well as the relationships between late-adolescent pupils and their teachers, and provokes questions regarding the issues of boundaries that are set in modern society.

The play begins in the future, with Irwin making a political speech from a wheelchair.
The opening dialogue is unmemorable, allowing the audience to settle before the main action of the play begins with a video and accompanying music, portraying a busy morning of pupils and teachers flocking to school. During the showing of the video, the set is being put together by the boys and the video and music cease as soon as the set is complete. This leads straight into the main character, Hector, entering the stage in a stylized way as the boys take off his crash helmet, gloves, scarf, and coat, each repeating, in French, the name of the item they are removing, thus giving the audience the impression that Hector is not a teacher of the usual mold.

The set is simple as well as being effective, with the use of orange plastic chairs and formica-topped tables for the classroom scenes, and sofas for the staff room. Sliding walls are moved around slickly to depict changes in location, which range from classroom to staffroom, corridor to changing room.

The scene changes are well choreographed, using video and music. At times one of the boys acts as narrator, revealing his "inner thoughts" to the audience, at others, a piano, placed in the left hand corner of the stage is played by another boy whilst another sings. This enables the mood changes to have more impact on the audience, and brings humour to intense situations.

Desmond Barrit's performance is powerful in his portrayal of Hector, with a fine balance of tragedy and dry humour. David Mallinson, playing the bumbling headmaster, is extremely believable in the role. Elizabeth Bell is Mrs Lintott, the history teacher who portrays the character of a million female teachers who have, in her own words "taught five centuries of masculine ineptitude". Of the boys, those that stand out are Andrew Hawley as charming and arrogant Dakin, Daniel Fine as the sensitive, intelligent, gay Posner, and Danny Kirrane as the overweight class joker, Timms.

Originally directed by Nicholas Hytner of The National Theatre, this revival is superbly re-created by Paul Miller, who is noted to have brought "new surprises in Alan Bennett's dazzling elegy to a lost world" (Billington, Guardian, 9th January, 2008). This run of The History Boys is billed as its last season which ends on the 26th April of this year, and is highly recommended as a play which is full of jokes, songs and downright daftness. Alan Bennett's style of writing is as fresh and topical as ever, the proof of the pudding being in the multi-cultured audience's appreciation of the play which received a standing ovation on a wet afternoon in March.
© C Churcher March 18th 2008

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