Alan Bennett’s The History Boys is a tour de force set in a classroom, a supercharged school debate about the nature of education and of history: ‘This house believes both have been subverted by the government and the media.’
The government’s obsession with school league tables, for instance, which many believe are corrupting exams and learning in the UK. As always, Bennett’s humour is dry as chalk dust, as when the Headmaster says, ‘We’re low in the league. I want to see us up there with Manchester Grammar, Haberdasher Askes, Leighton Park… or is that an open prison?’
The set around which the eight boys leap and lounge and rearrange desks and chairs between scenes is stark and dark. It could be the sixth form classroom of any Eighties provincial grammar school. But there is an upright piano in the corner and when the subversive Hector is the teacher in charge the boys break from quoting poetry verbatim to performing songs from the shows and enacting scenes from Now Voyager and Brief Encounter. Here Posner, played by Rob Delaney is the star.
The maverick Hector (Philip Franks) wants his boys to take delight as they find it and really take words to heart, as pleasure and consolation throughout a lifetime. But the new master, Irwin, played by Ben Lambert, teaches them to collect and polish facts and quotes as gems to dazzle the selection boards of Oxford and Cambridge. This was Bennett’s own strategy as a Yorkshire grammar school boy aiming high. He claims that he coolly gave the Oxbridge examiners what he knew they wanted, gaining places at both universities, and says The History Boys is ‘a confession and an expiation for what I feel was cheating. In effect, it was a confidence trick.’
Like much of Bennett’s work the play is partly autobiographical, though his own teachers were less entertaining than Hector. The ambitious headmaster of his Yorkshire state school directed him and seven schoolmates to apply to Oxbridge.
He says, ‘I had to school myself in the technique for passing exams which Irwin exemplifies in the play, which I’d argue is more a flashy type of journalism rather than a true understanding of the subject.’ He did the same again to gain a First.
In a wry snipe at the proliferating breed of media professors the dazzling Mr Irwin’s fate is to become a television history presenter, holding up his tarnished gems to a mass audience. But the boys themselves, in a deft twist of the plot, learn exactly what history is.
Note – includes swearing and sexual content.
The History Boys by Alan Bennett is at the Curve theatre, Leicester, until March 26.
For tickets call: 0116 242 3595 or book online at www.curveonline.co.uk