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TRCH Robin Hood

The History Boys

20 September 06 words: Dom Henry
The hit Alan Bennett play about a group of Sheffield sixth formers and their big chance to get into Oxbridge comes to town...
The History Boys production photo, Manuel Harlan (c)

The National Theatre’s incarnation of the History Boys is mid way through its sell out tour. Not only is it from the pen of Alan Bennett, one of the nations most loved playwrights, but is also a collaboration between Bennett and famous theatre and movie producer Nicholas Hytner, a duo which gave us the Madness of King George. To add to the PR buzz is the imminent release of the History Boys as a film (due October 13th) which is based on this award winning production, one to watch out for.

Set in a Sheffield grammar school in the eighties we find our History Boys, a group of bright, canny history students, contemplating the outside chance of an undergraduate place at Oxford or Cambridge. They have got thus far thanks to their mentor Hector, an unorthodox English teacher nearing retirement, whose love of the real substance of knowledge, irreverence for the education system and offbeat style has inspired them to achieve successful grades.

As the entrance exams approach their results obsessed headmaster hires Irwin, a young iconoclastic history teacher to groom them to impress the examiners. This shrewd young teacher has a entirely different take on exam success, truth taking a second place to interpretation and delivery, with manipulation of the sound bite and spin being the tools to win over the examiners. This clash of styles becomes the basis for the play, with the boys efforts to understand and evaluate them driving the proceedings..

You might be forgiven for thinking sixth form exam worries a dull topic, or at least you will right up until the first one liner, after which you will be caught in almost ceaseless laughter. This show is presented very much like a series of sketches, each scene presenting some new situation and clash of cheeky boyish wit against the dry seasoned humour and vision of the veteran staff. The real joy of the show however is the complexity of the emotional undercurrents which tug at the characters: eroticism, self doubt, perplexity and youthful vigour pulse through every interaction.

The performances amongst the boys and staff are sterling throughout. Memorable parts include Steven Webb as the sensitive misfit Posner with his soft ways, understated manner and unanswered yearnings. School lothario and charismatically confident alpha boy Dakin, played by Ben Barnes, is a delight, particularly to Posner and the new teacher who have crushes. Stephen Moore is great, especially for us HItchHiker fans – he played the original Marvin, as boys tweed clad mentor Hector with his quirky wit - particularly in the scene were he improvises a rowdy class roll play in French, set in a brothel. Hector’s youthful counterpart Irwin, played by Orlando Wells, pulls off a wonderful display off simperingly insincere spin in his recording of a history docu drama, perfectly highlighting the standpoint he teaches. While the teacher characters are exaggerated in their styles, as figures of authority and mirth they surely deserve the portrayal, we were all under their thumbs once.

The set, sound and lighting are of equal calibre to the performances and the combined effect with the fascinating characters, nostalgic imagery and witty social metaphor is masterful. Enlightening and superb.

The History Boys plays at the Theatre Royal until Saturday 23rd September 2006.

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