The History Boys
Alan Bennett’s play about boys at a Sheffield school being schooled in how to pass university entrance exams by two very different teachers is given an energetic new production by Sheffield Theatres.
The pupils are used to conventional teaching, the exception being general studies with Hector, an impressive Matthew Kelly. His lively lessons are dominated by his obsession with learning poetry off by heart and a determination that the boys should make no practical use of his teaching.
The odiously ambitious headteacher, expertly portrayed by Nicholas Day, brings in historian Irwin (Edwin Thomas) to push up the number of boys who get into Oxbridge.
Conventional history teaching is represented by Mrs Lintott (Julia St John), who values precision and objectivity.
Irwin is challenging, cynically suggesting the boys take historical theories and turn them on their heads for effect, a trick he later uses as a TV historian. This fakery is brilliantly exposed when Irwin casually applies it to the Holocaust and has to apologise to the horrified parents of Jewish pupil Posner.
Posner (Oliver Coopersmith) is small and innocent and in love with the over-confident and charismatic Dakin (Tom Rhys Harries). Both actors give their characters depth and credibility.
One striking theme looks at sexual abuse of the boys by Hector. The way that Bennett treats this sits very uncomfortably, following the Jimmy Savile scandal. Hector gives pupils lifts home on his motorbike - which roars across the set. He routinely fondles them and is spotted and temporarily disgraced.
This is discussed by the boys, who view it as an amusing eccentricity they put up with because of his inspirational teaching -- which takes place behind locked doors.
Undoubtedly this reflects how views have changed since the 1980s, when the play was set, but it still set my teeth on edge as it suggested no damage to anyone. Hector is portrayed as more innocent than the lads, who unsurprisingly have sex on their minds.
We see Dakin’s sexual conquest of headmaster’s secretary Fiona (Stacey Sampson) on her boss’s desk and see that Mr Day thinks it’s fine to grope her.
Michael Longhurst’s direction is clever and assured and Chloe Lamford’s set helped the action move along in an impressive production.