The History Boys – a review
We were at The Lowry, Salford Quays, to see Alan Bennett’s The History Boys. This was one of the last performances on the road before the company settle into London’s Wyndham’s Theatre until the middle of April 2007.
The school gives them an education. I give them the wherewithal to resist it. Examine a boy and he is tamed already. Only examine him and you can tax him, empanel him, enlist him, interrogate him and put him in prison. You have only to grade him and you have got him.
An unruly bunch of bright, funny sixth-form boys in pursuit of sex, sport and a place at university. A maverick English teacher at odds with the young and shrewd supply teacher. A headmaster obsessed with results and a history teacher who thinks he’s a fool. In Alan Bennett’s play, staffroom rivalry and the anarchy of adolescence provoke insistent questions about history and how you teach it; about education and its purpose.
Stephen Moore is excellent as Hector, the eccentric and old-fashioned teacher, who believes that education should be about nothing and everything, and is quite capable of importing a French lesson into his English teaching period. He is a man who has no time for the curriculum or for examinations and thinks that a good education should teach a person to resist whatever it is the state thinks he should consume.
Orlando Wells is Irwin, the modern teacher who sees his role as getting the boys through their examinations and interviews whatever it takes.
Bennett is a political playwright and he has mastered his craft well. He doesn’t come at you head-on, but, as it were, from the sides, like a wolf snapping at the legs of its prey. He sets up both sides of the argument and lets the protagonists fight it out; he shows how these arguments affect the boys and the reactions of the headmaster and staff, and then sits back, confident that we, his audience, will come to the right conclusion.
This is a great production, thought-provoking, nourishing and touching. Although I have picked out the nominal leads it is, nevertheless, an ensemble piece and the whole cast work together seamlessly.
Go see it; you’ll laugh and you’ll learn all kinds of things and it won’t hurt even a tiny bit.