Review: The History Boys

Alex Hope as Donald Scripps in The History Boys. Pic: Comp
Alex Hope as Donald Scripps in The History Boys. Pic: Comp
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IT might only have premiered in 2004, but there is much that jars in Alan Bennett’s signature work, The History Boys, in such a short space of time.

* * * * *

King’s Theatre

The piece revolves around eight boys preparing for their Oxbridge entrance exams in the early-80s and charts their relationship with their teachers.

Old inspirational teacher Hector, superbly played by Richard Hope, is caught groping one of the boys (implausibly on a motorbike at 50mph), and while he gets plenty of sympathy from the audience, it is undermined by the attitudes of the characters around him.

“Oh Hector, a grope is a grope,” says his colleague Mrs Lintott, again expertly observed by Susan Twist, but her description of Hector as a “twerp” is already way out its time in the post-Jimmy Savile, Rolf Harris and Cyril Smith era. However, even then, a grope of 17-year-old schoolboys by 60-year-old men in a position of trust was not, and never has been, just a grope. Those who do so are much more than twerps. If this play was Goodbye Mr Chips with a bit of acceptable homosexual grooming in 2004, it’s You’ve Had Your Chips now.

There is also the pedestal on which Bennett, understandably grateful for the education he received from his humble background, puts Oxbridge, with jokey references to ‘lesser’ institutions like Bristol and Durham.

The gags got laughs, so I guess locals are comfortable with the comparison, or perhaps the fact it’s now tougher to get onto many courses at those places is lost on them.

Christopher Ettridge as the target-driven headmaster is, as Mrs Lintott says, a very convincing “twat” and Mark Field too has the role of troubled supply teacher Irwin off to a tee.

Stand-out of the boys was Steven Posner, whose song and dance routines were entertaining in their own right, with Keda Williams-Stirling a close second as the target for his and Irwin’s affections.

The play is barely ten years old, but even the passage of time has not been kind and director Kate Saxon acknowledges as much in her programme notes. It’s difficult to fault her staging, but dated it definitely is.

Run ends Saturday