Jeremy Brown, Arts&Lit editor, reviews The History Boys at the Exeter Northcott, a fantastic play by Alan Bennet.
[dropcap size=big]A[/dropcap]s this is a review of The History Boys, I am contractually obliged to note how enormously popular this play is. In 2005, it won the highest honour in UK theatre: an Olivier Award. In 2006, this was followed by a Tony Award for the Broadway version. Last year, all this support was summed up with the accolade of the ‘Nation’s Favourite Play’. And it’s hardly a surprise: Alan Bennett – a national hero if ever there was one – created this masterpiece just a decade ago, and it’s already been adopted by both popular culture and our national curriculum.
For all these reasons, the Sell A Door Theatre Company’s revival has been welcomed with open arms throughout the country. Now, it’s finally time for Exeter to host the tour, so I’m going to the Northcott Theatre to see whether this incarnation lives up to the original.
Walking into the auditorium, my first impressions are of the meticulously-decorated set: a school classroom, complete with pictures of famous artists bursting off the walls, as well as iconic book covers and vibrant film posters. Coupled with the incredible 80s music filling the theatre (‘Blue Monday’ by New Order is a regular fixture in this play), I can’t help smiling.
At first glance, The History Boys is about contrasting methods of education. The play follows a group of successful A Level students preparing for Oxbridge examinations, under the guidance of three teachers: Mrs Lintott, Mr Hector and Mr Irwin. Lintott supplies the boys with the historical facts, but this knowledge is arguably not enough to get them into Oxbridge. Hector offers cultural wisdom, giving them a deep, philosophical appreciation of poetry but refusing to admit that these quotes and “gobbets” could ever be used for anything other than self-betterment. The third teacher, Irwin, is hired by the results-obsessed headmaster in a desperate attempt to help the students cheat the system and get into the top tier of universities. You can clearly see that Bennett’s play is partially led by his own unjustified ‘guilt’ at getting into Oxbridge through such tricks.
Lintott is played expertly by Susan Twist, and the flashbacks to my own History teachers are so strong I’m starting to wonder if she has a background in education. Despite the glorious silhouette of the late Richard Griffiths forever occupying the role of Hector in my mind, Richard Hope does a good job reinventing the role, showing an angrier side to the character. Mark Field brings the youthful uncertainty of Irwin to the fore, accurately showing the difficulty a new teacher faces when trying to prove himself to a class. However, I’d say that some of the comedy from the play is perhaps lost, simply because the headmaster is nowhere near as unhinged as previous incarnations, and his humorous tyranny is only seen fleetingly.
Apart from the theme of education, the motorbike which looms ominously above the stage throughout ensures that the play’s dark side can never be forgotten. Although Hector is brilliantly charismatic, and clearly admired by his students, he also “fiddles” with the boys each week on his bike. In the aftermath of Operation Yewtree, it’s interesting to think how society turned a blind eye to such inappropriate behaviour, but of course Bennett complicates the story by presenting Hector’s well-meaning personality above all else, and showing the boys’ light-hearted acceptance of his occasional groping.
The most interesting characters are, of course, the students, and this group of young actors certainly shows great potential. I am particularly impressed by the mix of humour and sincerity offered by Steven Roberts in the challenging role of Posner, who is definitely blessed with some of the best lines (“I’m a Jew, I’m small, I’m homosexual, and I live in Sheffield… I’m fucked.”) Roberts’ singing is especially popular, with consistent rounds of applause following his bouts next to the piano.
Like this group of students, I grew up in Sheffield. I haven’t seen this play since university applications, so it’s fascinating experiencing it from ‘the other side’, and it’s to their credit that I’ve come out of this performance with a massive appreciation for one of the key messages: don’t confuse learning with “the smell of cold stone”. Every time I see this play, I notice something new, and this version was just as eye-opening and enjoyable as the originals.
The Sell A Door tour lasts until mid-July, so if you’re lucky enough to see the show for yourself, grasp the opportunity. To re-appropriate the words of Hector, sometimes theatre acts “as if a hand has come out, and taken yours” – and if any play is going to speak to an audience of students, then surely it’s this one.
by Jeremy Brown