Review: The History Boys by Alan Bennett, Gallery Players, Sir John Mills Theatre until November 1.

The cast of The Gallery Players production of The History Boys by Alan Bennett featuring Phil Cory a

The cast of The Gallery Players production of The History Boys by Alan Bennett featuring Phil Cory as Hector, Darren Beattie as Headmaster and Thomas Haigh as Irwin - Credit: Archant

This is pretty daring stuff, even by the adventurous standards of Gallery Players, because the play depends absolutely on the ability of eight teenagers not just to act, but to bandy Bennett’s brilliant lines with an almost nonchalant ease. And this lot do just that.

On the face of it, boys in their teens playing teenagers should be easy peasy. But not with Bennett. His characters interact and scatter words like machine-gun fire and if these lads felt pleased with themselves when the opening night curtain came down they were entitled to do so.

They play the bright A level boys at a northern grammar school in the 1980s and for their ambitious headmaster the red bricks of Manchester or Sheffield simply won’t do. He’s pointing them at Oxford and Cambridge and he has hired a young teacher with modern ideas to bolster their chances.

Irwin, the new man, claims that what the Oxbridge dons will be looking for is originality of thought and he urges a journalistic attitude to their writing which might, he suggests, mean bending the facts with a little imagination.

This brings him into conflict with Hector, the boys’ English master, who worships words and truth. He loves literature and poetry but, like all the best teachers, he also feeds them bit of fun, the words of George Formby’s When I’m Cleaning Windows and the songs of Gracie Fields.

He also runs a competition which encourages the boys to stage hilarious little bits from famous films like Now Voyager and Brief Encounter. It is all grist to the mill of learning, even play-acting a scene in a French brothel.

Phil Cory’s Hector is nicely nuanced, strong and confident in class but with a sad, lonely edge and a foolish fondness for fondling that will break him. Thomas Haigh’s aspiring but slightly unsure Irwin is equally potent, with Darren Beattie raising a lot of laughs as the ruthlessly crafty, predatory headmaster.

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And the clever Bennett has put a woman at the beating heart of this bastion of throbbing testosterone. “Totty” Lintott teaches history and, in the shape of Linda Wooldridge, brings a nice sardonic feminist edge to the mix, using language that would make a sailor blush.

However, it’s the boys who really lift everything to life. All very different. All vital to this piece that is both very funny and moving. Liam Gregory is the cocky, assured Dakin, a born leader and Dan Moore is tops as the sensitive, tentative gay Posner. Xander Arthur is Dakin’s strange church-going confidant Scripps and he plays beautiful piano to back some lovely singing.

But Adam Earl (Akthar), Darnell Blanc (Crowther), Sean Bennett (Lockwood), Tom Mayhew (Rudge) and Charlie Cocker (Timms) weigh in wonderfully in this fast-moving cleverly choreographed entertaining night of theatre.

David Henshall

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