The National Theatre production of The History Boys is part of theatre: not just because it's a superb play but because so many of the cast went onto other (if not better) things.
To use a metaphor that would have been abhorrent to Hector, the charismatic teacher at the heart of the play, that National production resembled a rock band that had a minor hit but was the progenitor of several other major groups. It means that the original cast is still the standard by which all other productions are measured.
There's plenty to admire in Kate Saxon's new production, but what is missing is much of the humour of the original. Maybe we're all overly familiar with the play now and some of Bennett's bon mots have lost a little of their sparkle but this is a production that scores heavily on the politics and less on wit.
However, there are some strong performances at the heart of the play. Richard Hope's Hector is less camp than the Richard Griffiths original but we can certainly sense why his manner captivates the boys. Mark Field's Irwin is nicely judged, there's a real sense of the underlying insecurity of the character – he is after all supposed to be ‘just five minutes older' than the boys he's teaching – and we can feel the uncertainty in his own career path and sexuality. And Christoher Etteridge is excellent as Armstrong, the results-fixated headmaster; a brusque, charmless individual with little feeling for the subtleties of teaching.
Perhaps the saddest aspect of the evening is the little guide in the programme explaining who the people quoted in the play are. When audiences have to be told who Auden, Pascal and Wittgenstein are, then we know that the Armstrongs of this world have won and the Hectors have nothing but their meagre pension to look forward to.
The History Boys runs at Theatre Royal Brighton until 14 February, before touring to Hull (16-21 February), Birmingham (23-28 February), Winchester (2-7 March), Windsor (9-14 March), Edinburgh (17-21 March), Ipswich (23-28 March), Cheltenham (31 March-4 April), Blackpool (14-18 April), Portsmouth (22-25 April), Bromley (27 April-2 May), Crewe (5-9 May), Derry (12-16 May), Buxton (19-23 May), Exeter (26-30 May), Swindon (1-6 June), York (8-13 June), Darlington (16-20 June), Malvern (29 June-4 July) and Cambridge (7-11 July).