The History Boys

The History Boys (Theatre, Royal, Brighton, until Saturday, February 14th)

Pass it on… the new touring production of Alan Bennett’s gem The History Boys is a true class act that more than passes the test.

It’s hard to believe the award-winning and ever-popular play was first staged at the National Theatre 11 years ago, and many who saw that will have felt it was a production that could never be bettered, with a stunning cast, showcasing a writer on topmost form.

It has gone through a few metamorphoses since then, but it remains hard to forget that original, which helped put the play at the top of a Best Loved British plays list only recently in the face of the stiffest competition.

Director Kate Saxon and the Sell A Door Theatre Company demonstrate that even the cream of the crop can be regenerated in a captivating production that simply demands to be seen. It’s as though the entire company, from set designer to actors, has been told to forget about what has gone before and treat the piece as something brand new and fresh. The result is an invigorating and innovative delight with a definite added layer of down to earthiness, which makes everything seem even more credible and gives the work a new edge.

The play is set during an autumn term in the 1980s after A-levels when eight candidates of mixed ability stay on at grammar school to study in the hope of gaining a university place at Oxford or Cambridge. It is a warm, witty, and thought-provoking look at the relationship between pupils and their teachers, a study of education and the passing on and receiving of knowledge.

Those of us who saw the original production might be tempted to think each role could only be played by that strong first cast, but here the characters are in many ways redefined and certainly reimagined. Kedar Williams-Stirling has more than a devilish streak of charisma as the manipulative Dakin, appealing to classmates, secretaries and teachers alike while Steven Roberts as Posner makes a highly commendable professional stage debut as Posner, the young Jewish gay as likely to sing Gracie Fields as he is to quote Auden, constantly finding it hard to fit in. In fact they and the rest of the boys (Alex Hope, David Young, Patrick McNamee, Sid Sagar, Joshua Mayes-Copper, and Matthew Durkan) all play their roles well and with tremendous enthusiasm and they seem more accessible and identifiable with than ever before.

The always-excellent Richard Hope steps into the role of Hector as to the manner born, the lovable and eccentric English and General Studies teacher whose personality and ideas are constrained only by the imaginations of his class and it is easy to see why he should be such an inspiration. Mark Field is very good too as Irwin, the fresh-faced and cynical history supply teacher keen to challenge conventions and challenge young minds.

There are also strong performances from Christopher Ettridge  as the stereotypical results-driven Headmaster, full of tension and hypocrisy, and Susan Twist as Mrs Lintott, the one female representative, concerned with truth in academic life and beyond the school walls.

If The History Boys is truly Bennett’s magnum opus then this new production plays its part in preserving the masterpiece and enabling audiences to see even more artistry behind the brushstrokes.