“You can have knowledge just for the sake of it” says Hector to his students as he prepares them for the Oxbridge examination in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, a play that addresses the relationship between coming of age and youthful expectation.
Upon its premiere at the National Theatre in 2004, the work became an instant success with an extended run, followed by two successful seasons in the West End and a triumphant transfer to Broadway. This new touring production, a partnership between the Theatre Royal Bath and the West Yorkshire Playhouse, seems set to continue this commercial and artistic success.
The plot is simple, following eight boys that have been selected for their academic ability to apply for Oxbridge, and charts the ups and downs along the way to them achieving their goal. Their teacher, Hector, is forced to reassess his own relationship with the boys upon the arrival of a new tutor to the school, Irwin, who shows the boys a different way to look at the world. The following events constitute an intelligent observation of the education system and the relationship between teacher and pupil.
Gerard Murphy as Hector turns in a strong performance full of nuances displaying his passion for literature. Other notable efforts include James Byng as Posner, and Kyle Redmond-Jones as Dakin who embody the polemic teaching styles of their alma mater. The rest of the boys are a delight to watch as they dart about the stage making wise cracks at one another. Their brother-like solidarity is what makes the second act so powerful.
Some of the darker elements of the script were not explored to their full limits, with the audience not feeling as sympathetic after Hector’s death as they should do. This was not due to lack of ability from the cast, rather the product of safe direction from Christopher Luscombe. Similarly the revelation of misconduct amongst the staff was not delivered with as much drama as could have been and consequently handicapped the emotional development of the performances.
It is not hard to see why The History Boys has enjoyed such success and continues to fill houses every night. The script is as funny as it is moving, and works as social commentary of growing up in the north of England and been educated in institutions where “The chief enemy of culture in any school is the headmaster.”
- Harrison Kelly