After conquering Broadway and the big screen, the National Theatre’s multi award-winning stage production of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys returned to London this week, at last receiving its West End premiere on Wednesday (3 January 2007, previews from 21 December) at Wyndham’s Theatre (See 1st Night Photos, 4 Jan 2007).

Set in the 1980s, The History Boys questions the purpose and means of education. In a school where the headmaster cares only about exam results, a bunch of excitable sixth-form boys go about their pursuit of the important things: sex, sport and a university place.

Since its premiere at the National on 18 May 2004, The History Boys’ myriad awards to date have included: Best Play at the Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle Awards, Best New Play at the Olivier Awards, Best New Comedy at the Theatregoers’ Choice Awards and, in New York, no fewer than six Tony Awards, including Best Play and Best Direction of a Play.

In the current cast, seen on the road last year for the play’s second major UK tour, Stephen Moore plays unconventional English teacher Hector (originated on stage and screen Richard Griffiths), with Isla Blair (as Mrs Lintott), William Chubb (as the Headmaster) and Orlando Wells (as Irwin). The boys are played by Owain Arthur (Timms), Ben Barnes (Dakin), Philip Correia (Rudge), Marc Elliott (Akthar), Thomas Morrison (Scripps), Akemnji Ndifornyen (Crowther), David Poynor (Lockwood) and Steven Webb (Posner).

While first night critics praised the current strong ensemble, many missed the play’s original cast, who, they said, are “indelibly” associated with the roles following the extended National Theatre runs, international tour, Broadway run and film. However, they all enjoyed anew the banter, emotional tugs and intellectual tussles in Bennett’s comedy drama, and some even preferred seeing the play in its new proscenium arch home in the West End.

  • Michael Coveney on (3 stars) – “Nicholas Hytner’s production, recreated by Simon Cox, reminds us that nothing is more important to us than the way we're educated…. Whereas Frances de la Tour created something of a comic turn out of Mrs Lintott, Isla Blair plays her straight down the middle. No frills, either, in William Chubb’s blinkered headmaster. All the new performances are good, but there's one crucial ingredient missing: a sense of these adults being ‘characters’ as teachers. Richard Griffiths’ Hector was an intensely moving creation... Stephen Moore projects a blithe exterior as Hector but leaves us to guess what’s going on inside…. Irwin is a difficult role, having to both assert himself in an initially hostile environment while maintaining an ambiguous emotional stance. Orlando Wells gets exactly that sense of unease giving way to a steely certainty…. The play seems clunky in comparison (to the film)… But the spirit of the piece lives on, especially in the performances of Ben Barnes as the contemptuously confident Dakin, Steven Webb as Posner, often identified as the Bennett character, and Philip Correia as the salt-of-the-earth Rudge.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (4 stars) – “I have had a partial change of mind and definite change of heart about Alan Bennett's The History Boys: those sparky, larky post-A Level, north of England, 1980s grammar school chaps who make it to Oxbridge thanks, unbelievably, to lessons from Orlando Wells' Irwin, a young supply teacher, replacing Isla Blair's suitably tart historian. At the 2004 premiere, I was in the minority of unenthused critics. I still have reservations, but I was moved, disturbed and exhilarated…. Simon Cox's production, based on Nicholas Hytner's original, makes a far stronger emotional impact, thanks to Stephen Moore, giving the performance of a lifetime as an old, gay teacher. The multiple scenic shifts work better here than at the National…. The atmosphere is jubilantly playful…. The play's sad, gay longings are trivialised and treated with misguided frivolity. Even so, Moore's Hector, a teacher to his roving fingertips, all ruminative in grey-green, buoyed up by irony and the pleasures of elucidating poetry, achieves an overwhelming pathos when sexually downed and outed.”

  • Paul Taylor in the Independent (4 stars) – “Richard Griffiths, whose performance as Hector bagged all the major awards in London, and, earlier this year, won the Tony on Broadway, is indelibly identified with the role (which he reprised in the underrated film of the play). It's not just because of this actor's Falstaffian girth that his successors in the part risk looking a bit shrunken…. Here, Hector is played by Stephen Moore, who cuts a trim, rather effete figure. He gives a sensitive and cumulatively very affecting performance, but he's not forceful or angry enough in his one-man awkward-squad routine, and you don't feel the strength of his emotional need to be remembered as a ‘character’ by the boys. He's best at the quiet moments - spell-binding in the superb sequence in which Hector expounds on a Hardy poem to the troubled, gay Posner, revealing the depth of his own loneliness and stoicism…. High-voiced, sad-faced and poignantly pert, Steven Webb is both amusing and moving as Posner…. As Dakin, the sexy object of his affections, Ben Barnes is handsome and engaging but rather bland and one-note in his cockiness.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (4 stars) – “It’s nearly three years since Alan Bennett’s The History Boys started the journey that took it from triumph at the National to almost greater success on Broadway — and its revival in the West End, though far from bad, left me nostalgic for Richard Griffiths, Frances de la Tour and a cast that had me thinking and laughing, laughing and thinking, all at the same time…. Bennett somewhat sentimentalises Hector… but here’s where Griffiths was so strong, bringing astringency and a sly sense of mischief to the old-fashioned humanist. Stephen Moore, who now takes the role, ends up finding a touching vulnerability and pain in the character, but tries too hard at first to be likeable and at times seems so ingratiating that any sharp 17-year-old (and almost all his pupils are just that) would certainly fart in his general direction…. The class members are again a pretty impressive lot. But William Chubb isn’t as fiercely obsessive as Clive Merrison’s headmaster in 2004 nor has the usually excellent Isla Blair the sardonic, seen-it-all fatalism of de la Tour…. But does the slight lack of fizz that was apparent on opening night make the play less essential viewing? Not at all.”

    - by Caroline Ansdell