The History Boys is one of Alan Bennett’s funniest and most thought-provoking plays. The boys are a class of sixth-formers studying history and attempting to get into Oxbridge. Their headmaster brings in a new, young, Oxbridge-educated teacher in an attempt to improve their chances; however, the new master’s approach to history, and indeed to education, is as a means to an end, to stand out amongst other scholarship candidates.
He soon comes into conflict with their English teacher, Hector, who cares rather more about literature as a preparation for life than as an examination subject. However, Hector’s habit of groping his pupils whilst giving them a lift on his motorbike leads to him being sacked; he crashes his bike whilst giving the new history teacher a lift home, and is killed.
As you might expect from Bennett, the dialogue is impeccably (and impossibly) witty, but alongside the play’s epigrammatic brilliance are layers of nostalgia. It might be said that the play’s real heart lies not in its originality, but in its quotations, which range from Shakespeare and Hardy to Brief Encounter, Gracie Fields, and "Bye Bye Blackbird" – which is sung at Henry’s memorial.
The directing team of Ian Forrest and Jez Pike do a fine job of keeping the pace of the play up and have coaxed a fluid ensemble performance from the eight young actors playing the boys. Mitchell Hunt is an appropriately self-possessed leading man as Dakin, the object of both staff and pupil crushes. Meilir Rhys Williams brings a touching vulnerability to the lovelorn Posner, and sings beautifully.
Of the teachers, Maria Gough’s Mrs Lintott is a wry and watchful presence, and Kieran Buckeridge’s exam coach Irwin is briskly unlikeable until he is taken unawares by Dakin one day. Robert Pickavance brings a twisted vulpine energy to the part of the Headmaster – this is the way we remember our teachers, whether or not they were like that.
If these last two are in some sense the play’s villains, Peter Rylands’ Hector is very much its hero. He brings a crumpled and compelling integrity to the part, communicating the necessity of art for living not only to the boys but to the audience as well, exhorting them to ‘pass it on’.
The History Boys is a vivaciously entertaining production bringing to life the emotional heart of Bennett’s witty play.