Nearly four years after Alan Bennett’s The History Boys premiered at the National Theatre, here it is again, as fresh, funny and stimulating as ever. In fact, Nicholas Hytner’s production, recreated by Paul Miller, is a vast improvement on the version we saw last January in the same theatre.

It moves along at a tremendous pace. The switches between filmed sequences and stage action are much snappier. And the overall “sideways on” performance of the cast is much better suited to Bennett’s sly script, which mixes supple arguments about the point and purpose of education with Wildean epigrams and scatological brio.

But mostly the difference is made by Desmond Barrit as Hector, the inspirational English teacher who wants the boys to find their own voices by appreciating those of the poets. As for Bennett, Hector’s chief exemplars are Auden, Larkin and AE Housman, and there are beautiful little critical asides as those reputations are weighed against Hector’s deconstruction of the Hardy poem about Drummer Hodge with the nervous Jewish boy Posner (Daniel Fine, slightly too studied in his sensitivity).

Barrit tears you apart in this scene, making it a heart-wrenching coda to the news of his impending early retirement after being reported by the headmaster’s wife for “fiddling” with the boys on his motorbike. Barrit took over the role at the NT from Richard Griffiths, and the very least you can say of his great performance is that he makes it entirely his own. Big, shambling, jollier than Griffiths, Barrit finds a tragic dimension that boosts the heart of the play without overpowering it.

For as Andrew Hawley’s immensely likeable, though darkly cruel, Dakin makes clear, Barrit’s relationship with his pupils fulfils Hector’s own view – which is no more or less than the truth – that the transmission of all knowledge is in part an erotic act. Dakin homes in on the new young history teacher Irwin (Tim Delap), hired by the head (David Mallinson) to push the boys through the Oxbridge exams and the school up the league tables, as part of the burgeoning mood of sexual and intellectual frankness.

Elizabeth Bell plays Mrs Lintott straight down the middle, as Isla Blair did last year, and the piano-playing Scripps of Thomas Howes and the bluff sportsman Rudge of Ryan Hawley are outstandingly good. It’s immensely cheering to have a play of such quality back in the West End. I almost surprised myself by enjoying it every bit as much, possibly more, than I have done on my two previous visits. And the film’s not bad, either.

- Michael Coveney

NOTE: The following THREE-STAR review dates from January 2007 and this production's last West End season, also at Wyndham's Theatre.

In under three years since its premiere at the National Theatre in May 2004, Alan Bennett’s The History Boys has toured the country, stormed Broadway, visited Australia, New Zealand and Japan, been made into a movie and even been performed on the radio. It seems astonishing that what is in effect an unwieldy ragbag of a play should have made such a massive impact.

Now revived in the West End featuring the cast from the recent UK tour, Nicholas Hytner’s production, recreated by Simon Cox, reminds us that nothing is more important to us than the way we're educated. Bennett’s boys in a Yorkshire grammar school in 1983 are being groomed for scholarships to Oxford and Cambridge. They are the elite force who can experience the best that their school can offer while being sufficiently confident to question the manner of its communication.

The richness of Bennett’s writing comes from this air of disputatious limbo between learning and its purpose, or means of application. Hector is the boys’ favourite, a shambling English teacher who believes, with A E Housman, that “all knowledge is precious whether or not it serves the slightest human use”. The surprise of the play is that, while you would expect this view to be the play’s orthodoxy, the new history teacher, Irwin, who has been brought in to smarten up the boys’ examination techniques, emerges as at least Hector’s equal in intellectual plausibility.

Then there's the wise - and sometimes wise-cracking - lady teacher, Mrs Lintott, who is fairly sceptical of both approaches and believes most in the value of hard facts. 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, and even more so in the film, especially in the scene where he deconstructs the Thomas Hardy poem for the tremulous Posner. Stephen Moore projects a blithe exterior as Hector but leaves us to guess what’s going on inside. Even the moment of his breakdown in front of the class, once he has been exposed for his sexual peccadilloes, is more manufactured than felt, you feel.

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, and also conveys that strange status of being scarcely older than the boys he's teaching. As before, the play gives off a wonderful heat of battle in the classroom, with the recital of a Rodgers and Hart song, or an extract from Brief Encounter, hinting at sexual entanglements beyond immediate comprehension.

A good teacher is a seducer as much as a good pupil is, to a certain extent, a compliant lover. The gradations in this relationship, and how we define them, are the timeless subjects of The History Boys. The film took the boys to Riveaux Abbey and even into the quadrangles and halls of Oxbridge. The play seems clunky in comparison with its resort to slide shows and badly masked film sequences. 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.

- Michael Coveney

Note: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from September 2006 and this production's earlier tour.

Madness’ “Baggy Trousers” features prominently in this production of Alan Bennett’s acclaimed play, ostensibly set in the 1980s: perhaps it is being used ironically, for the lyrics are a full generation away from the self-discipline and diligence of the grammar school boys portrayed here.

Bennett acknowledges that he based the work on his own experience in the 1950s, and this anachronism does jar. Equally, I doubt that 1980s’ schoolboys would have remained so loyal to their teacher Hector (Stephen Moore), however inspirational, given his penchant for fondling sixth-formers on the back of his motorbike.

The youngest and most vulnerable boy, Posner (a funny, poignant performance by Steven Webb), is never invited onto the pillion – a small credit to Hector, perhaps, for not exploiting him. His peers seek to protect him, and are sympathetic about his homosexuality. It is common knowledge that he is in love with the resolutely heterosexual Dakin (Ben Barnes), the class Adonis, and it is Posner who realises that their new young teacher Tom Irwin (Orlando Wells) is equally smitten.

Irwin has been brought in to hot-house the boys for Oxbridge entrance. It is an exercise in learning exam technique (apparently by taking a perverse view of the subject at hand) and how to deal with the interview (lie flamboyantly). Hector meanwhile seeks to educate these academic high-fliers through literature, poetry and classic films, revelling in knowledge for its own sake. His approach is frustrating to the headmaster (William Chubb) who would prefer the quality to be quantifiable.

Caveats about historical context aside, Bennett as usual brings more to the subject matter than mere plot. The play highlights how history turns on small moments of chance and examines conflicting philosophies on the purpose of education.

The serious work of the class is punctuated by some great comic sequences (the climax of Brief Encounter has never been this funny). In a first-rate cast, Isla Blair’s pragmatic history teacher brings an amused detachment to the maelstrom, Thomas Morrison is effective in the unshowy but pivotal role of Scripps, and Owain Timms produces a marvellous pastiche of Bette Davis’ role in Now Voyager.

Are the boys successful? Indeed, how do you define success? And what happens when the headmaster hears of Hector’s peccadilloes? The film adaptation will be released shortly, but try not to miss this excellent revival of the original National Theatre production.

- Annette Neary (reviewed at Birmingham Rep)

Note: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from October 2005 and this production's earlier tour.

The History Boys - which has been a multi award-winning, sell-out success for the National Theatre - starts its nationwide tour in Newcastle. Written by Alan Bennett, the play is funny, tragic and thought-provoking and must be seen as one of Bennett’s best works - which is saying something of the author of Talking Heads and The Madness of George III.

But The History Boys' success is not due to the superb writing alone. It's also because the story appeals to a wide audience, from students to teachers and the general public alike - everyone has been touched by the education system so everyone can connect with different aspects.

The play is set in a northern school. An unruly class of sixth form boys are played by excellent young actors, each easily fitting into their characters, who are wrestling with various vicissitudes of youth. Their English teacher Hector (Desmond Barrit) has unconventional methods which include teaching Gracie Fields songs and becoming over familiar with his pupils - a predilection which proves to be his downfall.

The headmaster (Bruce Alexander) is obsessed with results and university places to such an extent he introduces a young supply teacher, Irwin (Tobias Menzies), to improve the boys’ chances and the school’s results. The only female member of the cast, teacher Mrs Lintott, is played by Diane Fletcher (best known as Angela the ex-wife of Norris in Coronation Street).

Hector and Irwin clash over teaching styles, but when the Headmaster’s wife witnesses an indiscretion Hector’s fate is sealed. As Hector prepares to leave the school and the university results come in, a chance turn of fate changes lives forever.

Told partially in flashback as well as in black-and-white short videos, we're able to witness staffroom rivalry as well as sixth formers in pursuit of sexual experiences. Bennett ensures that the story is funny, moving and highly watchable throughout.

Bob Crowley’s set is a very clever series of sliding walls that silently move us from classroom to staffroom. Unfortunately, the cables hanging a series of fluourescent lights are in front of the main screen and prove to be a distraction.

Directed by Simon Cox, based on the original production by NT artistic director Nicholas Hytner, this tightly knit touring ensemble delivers a piece of theatre that shows off Bennett at his best.

- John Dixon (reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle)