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24 September 2014

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First night - 19.05.04
The History Boys
School daze...Bennett's pupils prepare for Oxbridge entrance (photo by Ivan Kyncl)

Alan Bennett's account of a group of 6th form boys in pursuit of sex, sport and a place at university leaves our critic Mark Shenton with plenty to think about, too...


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The History Boys is at the National, Lyttelton Theatre, South Bank SE1
Tickets £10 - £25
In rep
Box office: 020 7452 3000



The History Boys (National Theatre, Lyttelton)
Playwright Alan Bennett has always excelled at being a detached observer of human behaviour in all its foibles and idiosyncrasies.

"This richly funny and superbly intelligent play about education and history, learning and culture, transports us all straight back to the classroom..."

But in this deeply personal and minutely observed account of a bunch of bright Northern grammar school boys preparing for their Oxbridge entrance exams - as he himself did in the 50s - he is as implicated as he was once involved.

The play is larger than this narrow personal reach suggests, because everyone, of course, has been to school.

And this richly funny and superbly intelligent play about education and history, learning and culture, transports us all straight back to the classroom.

Would, however, that we were all as fortunate as this particular class.

liberal education

No doubt for reasons of theatrical economics, we only get to meet four teachers and eight pupils – a teacher/student ratio that would be envied by any school in the land.

Here they're being provided with the kind of liberal education that teaches them to think for themselves – and in the process throws down plenty for us to think about, too.

Richard Griffiths
Larger-than-life: Richard Griffiths

The chaotic general studies classes of teacher Hector – the forever larger-than-life Richard Griffiths – may take place mysteriously behind locked doors, but he unlocks in his charges the kind of passions that have them quoting TS Eliot and Housman, enacting scenes from Brief Encounter and singing George Formby and Gracie Fields songs.

(They also learn a whole lot more when they accept lifts home on the back of his motorbike.)

adolescent desires

Far more rigorous are the history classes of a new arrival, the supply teacher Mr Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), who schools them in the kind of techniques that are most likely to impress a bored examiner.

Frances de la Tour
Dryly, wryly comic: Frances de la Tour

While the dryly, wryly comic Mrs Lintott of Frances de la Tour hilariously completes the set of teachers, the pupils, too, are beautifully realised in a brilliant ensemble that includes Dominic Cooper and Samuel Barnett, both full of awakening adolescent sexual desires.

This is a powerful and poignant play, staged with finesse by director Nicholas Hytner and acted with flair.

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