Five years after first declaring their ambitions, the History Boys have finally arrived at Oxford, albeit at the Old Fire Station Theatre rather than the University itself. Alan Bennett's story of eight grammar school boys and their attempts to get into Oxbridge (amongst other things) has in this short time already become something of a modern classic, so much so that at least one class-load of Literature boys and girls were in the audience with their teacher on the opening night.
For those as yet uneducated, the action begins with the headmaster of a northern boys' grammar school recruiting Irwin, a young Oxford-educated supply teacher, to condition the boys for their Oxbridge entrance exams. The boys' existing teachers are deemed inadequate to this task, initiating a clash of educational cultures. Hector, an English teacher and amiable old pederast, espouses the learning of knowledge for life. He encourages the boys to memorize poetry and regards examinations as demeaning. Irwin, on the other hand, has a particular goal in mind, and teaches the tactics that the boys will need in order to make their way through the education system. These tactics consist of turning the established narratives of history on their head and persuading the boys to write as though 'the wrong end of the stick is the right one', whether or not they actually believe this to be the case – an anathema to Hector.
In the first part of the play all of this seems to be rather heavy-handed, with Irwin in particular little more than a mouthpiece for an idea. Hector, for all his faults, clearly wins the boys' and the audience's approval. As the play progresses, however, the boys begin to adopt the habits of thinking that the ambitious Irwin tries to instil in them, whilst Hector begins to break down under scandal and self-doubt.
Despite its frequent billing as a comedy, The History Boys is very serious at heart. The nervous sniggering from the real schoolchildren in the theatre at the frequent references to the characters' sexuality at times threatened to outnumber the laughter at the genuinely comic moments. Such awkwardnesses as there are are mostly the responsibility of Bennett himself rather than the production. Whilst the action is set in a northern grammar school in the 1980s, it is hard to imagine such an institution really existing anywhere other than in Bennett's own mind. The schoolboys seem to be trapped in an odd alternative British 1950s with tastes to match, and the burst of Pet Shop Boys near the end is jarring, despite its evident significance in revealing that the boys are escaping the cosy nostalgic world of old films and musicals that Hector had been building for them, with their strangely willing complaisance.
All of the significant parts are well-played, with the three teachers and the comically odious headmaster of particular note. Dramatic touches, such as the inter-cut scenes between Irwin speaking to his colleague Dorothy whilst the conversation that he is describing to her is enacted with the young homosexual schoolboy Posner, are very well staged. Meriel Patrick's direction aims for intellectual and dramatic clarity throughout, and moves the story on at a lively pace, ensuring that this single-set play never seems static or claustrophobic. This is a fine staging of one of the most accessible yet thought-provoking plays of the last few years.
- James A J Wilson