Review: The History Boys, by Alan Bennett, New Wolsey Theatre, until Saturday.

The cast of The History Boys which is being staged at The New Wolsey Theatre

The cast of The History Boys which is being staged at The New Wolsey Theatre - Credit: Archant

Alan Bennett’s 2004 comedy The History Boys was recently declared The Nation’s Favourite Play by UK theatregoers and it’s easy to see why.

The cast of The History Boys which is being staged at The New Wolsey Theatre

The cast of The History Boys which is being staged at The New Wolsey Theatre - Credit: Archant

Bennett is a superb storyteller who mixes humour and pathos with deceptive ease. The secret of his success lies in the fact that he is a brilliant observer of people. His characters are recognisably real. Their traits and the situations they find themselves in may be slightly heightened for dramatic effect but by and large Bennett’s plays are about ordinary people. We recognise ourselves, family and friends in his work.

The History Boys follows the last few weeks in school of a group of able sixth-form students who are being given help in applying to Oxford and Cambridge Universities.

Through the play Bennett asks the important question: “What is education for?” For English literature teacher Hector education is an end in itself. He says that exams are the enemy of education. Education should be for life. For history teacher Mrs Lintott education is about knowing facts. For young supply teacher Irwin exams are the key to everything and getting into a good university is all about making an argument and being different from the crowd – while the headmaster is only concerned with boosting the school’s position in the league tables and not upsetting the governors.

With material as good as this, audiences are always in for a real treat. The teaching staff are particularly good. Richard Hope’s Hector was a shockingly accurate facsimile of one of my own teachers – although the real-life version didn’t have Hector’s anti-social habits.

Sadly, the younger cast, didn’t have that sparkle that we have come to expect from the play with only Steven Robert’s Posner doing anything that made his character stand out from the crowd. The rest delivered fine performances but they could have all been interchangeable. Bennett wrote these youngsters as being a collection of bright, sparky individuals but what we got in this production was a group of youngsters who wanted to be part of a crowd.

Dialogue was also a problem. The New Wolsey is not a big theatre but at times you really had to listen to catch what the younger actors said. It was not a problem with the older actors. I suspect training these days is more concerned with the intimate environment of the television studio than it is with the concerns of hitting the back wall of a theatre auditorium.

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The History Boys provided an entertainingly thoughtful evening. It received a rapturous reception at the end of the night but a little more attention to detail could have turned this acceptable production into an outstanding one.

Andrew Clarke

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