Meeting The History Boys

Yesterday was all kinds of exciting, for various reasons. Firstly, I had a day off (always exciting, especially on a Monday, because it means I get a lie-in). Secondly, I got to go to my first ever theatre bloggers event. And finally, I had the chance to see The History Boys, a play I’ve been aware of for years but never yet seen on stage.

So, where to start? Well, the lie-in was nice, but fairly uneventful, so let’s move on to the bloggers event. We’d been invited by the lovely people at the Churchill Theatre in Bromley to come along, have a drink and meet other theatre bloggers from the area. Some of the group I’d already met on Twitter; others I hadn’t. But it was really nice to finally put some faces to names, and I hope there’ll be more meet-ups in the future.

And finally – The History Boys. This is a new touring production of Alan Bennett’s play, directed by Kate Saxon. For those unfamiliar with the story, it’s about a group of boys at a school in northern England, who stay on after their A-Levels to study for the Oxbridge entrance exam, at the insistence of their results-obsessed headmaster. With two very different teachers to guide them, the stage is set for a critical examination of what education is really all about. Is its purpose simply to prepare students for exams, or to equip them for life?

History Boys production photo

The play is very much an ensemble piece, but there are a few stand-out performances. Richard Hope plays Hector, the boys’ favourite teacher, who deliberately shies away from encouraging the head’s Oxbridge ambitions and instead focuses his attention on getting the students to memorise poetry (and also on some other things that we won’t mention). At the other extreme, young supply teacher Irwin, played by Mark Field, is determined to get the boys through their exam, even if it means going against everything they know and believe in. Both men believe wholeheartedly in their own approach, and yet each of them has moments of vulnerability and doubt. Hope and Field play their roles to perfection, with such passion and conviction that you find yourself, much like the students, switching allegiance with every passing minute, and surprisingly willing to overlook some pretty major transgressions along the way.

Among the boys, Matthew Durkan shines in the pivotal role of Dakin. I didn’t realise until after the show that Durkan was the understudy for this part; he has all the swagger and cockiness of a young man who’s very aware that everyone loves him, and believes this gives him the right to manipulate them for his own amusement. Steven Roberts, too, is irresistible as Posner, just coming to terms with his homosexuality and struggling to find his place both within the group, and in life. But it almost feels unfair to single out anyone; the entire cast give flawless individual performances, but also have great chemistry as an ensemble. While I don’t for a moment imagine a real class of teenage boys would all get along that well, this particular group are both believable and likeable to watch. And I have to give a quick cheer for Susan Twist’s Mrs Lintott, who provides a welcome voice of reason – not that anyone’s listening to her.

The History Boys production photo

The History Boys is not a particularly easy play; it leaves you with more questions than answers, and while it’s very funny at times (I even enjoyed the dig at Nottingham Uni, despite being one of their graduates), it may well have you sobbing by the end. Besides the obvious theme of education versus learning, it throws up a lot of important issues related to growing up and finding your path in life – and how much of that should be guided by adults, who may well be more flawed than the younger generation they’re attempting to mould.

Being my first time seeing The History Boys, I obviously can’t compare this production to previous ones. All I can tell you is to try and see this one if you can, because it’s fantastic. It’s on at the Churchill in Bromley all this week, and if you quote HISTORYPACKAGE when you book, you can get a Band A seat, programme and drink for only £25. Bargain! Visit the website or call 0844 871 7620 to book.

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