Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, which is playing at the Grand Theatre until Saturday, was voted the nation’s favourite play in a recent poll and this touring production by new-producers-on-the-block Sell A Door Theatre Company reminds us exactly why that might be the case.

The majority of the play takes place in a classroom and follows the interactions of eight students who are being groomed for the Oxbridge entrance exam. We meet the headmaster who is so desperate for at least one candidate’s success (in order to increase the school’s status) that he hires the young and ambitious Mr Irwin to give extra history lessons. These are to complement the competent factual approach taken by Mrs Lintott but at the expense of the nebulously-titled general studies sessions that the soon-to-be-retired maverick teacher Hector leads.

Our insight into this locked-door approach from the older teacher involving, amongst other things, French speaking brothel improvisations, Gracie Fields recitals, learning of classical poems by heart and a sweepstake for re-enactment of popular culture snippets, is set against Mr Irwin’s desperation to seek out the sound-bite; the “gobbets” of information that will set the students apart from the masses when sitting their papers.

Lest we think that this is an homage to an inspirational figure from Bennett’s own childhood, he said of the play: “I was never taught by anybody like Hector. In fact my schooldays were rather dull and I have no feelings of nostalgia for them….I had to school myself in the technique for passing exams, which Irwin exemplifies in the play…The History Boys is both a confession and an expiation for what I feel was cheating. In effect it was a confidence trick. I devised a strategy for passing exams in order to get into Oxford in the first place and then I did exactly the same in order to get a first.”

For current students, the world depicted may feel somewhat alien; for many, who have become the product of standardised testing and league tables, the idea that education is about anything other than exam scores will be at best confusing. Those who are now leaving university with mortgage-sized debts may understandably find Hector nothing more than a laughable old nonce. I would urge you to go and watch this play anyway. For those parents whose chances of having had their own brush with a teacher of this ilk during their own schooling may be greater, there may be a nostalgic tingling and desire for their children’s education to be inspirational and passionate rather than formulaic and pressured. Whether that resolution lasts to the next Governors’ meeting or even General Election remains to be seen.

In this production, the scene-changing segments of music from 1983-1985 were a good way of reminding us that this story is firmly placed in a particular moment in time. However, I found the fairground ride signs and motorbike hanging ominously above throughout slightly distracting, although with such a well-known piece it’s worth not trying to pretend that the majority of the audience won’t know what is to come.

Steven Roberts who plays Posner deserves a special mention amongst this ensemble of young talent; his high-pitched tone and oscillation between desperate and thoughtful outsider and camped up performer is delicately and excellently portrayed. I haven’t seen the film version, however, I could hear the tones and timing of the late, great Richard Griffiths in the main protagonist role – although that is taking nothing from Richard Hope who ably fills Hector’s shoes with a finely balanced mix of pathos, inspiration and naivety.

This is a timely reminder of the importance of how our education is executed; this thought-provoking and entertaining night out should be compulsory for all parents, educators, civil servants and students alike. The History Boys is playing at the Grand Theatre until Saturday 18 April 2015. Tickets start at just £13.50 (£9.50 for school groups) and can be bought online, by phone on 01253 290190 or in person at the theatre Box Office.

Reclaim Blackpool - Mapping Sexual Harrasment
  • Avatar photo

    Melanie Whitehead is the Creative Director of The Old Electric, Blackpool's newest theatre. She previously worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre.

  • Show Comments (0)

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

comment *

  • name *

  • email *

  • website *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

You May Also Like

Rear View by IOU

Rear View Needs You

Want to be star of a unique show taking place on the streets of ...

Kite Runner Flies At The Grand

Khaled Husseini crams a lot into his novel and this is reflected in this ...