Phil Harrison

    A credit to the ingenious writing of Alan Bennett IT is a credit to the ingenious writing of Alan Bennett that a play which includes some quite overt references to a beloved teacher fondling a pupil on a motorbike could be taken into the heart of a nation, so much so, that it was recently voted Britain’s favourite play of all time. You do not beat the likes of William Shakespeare to that accolade without a sharp wit and deeply engaging characters – something that The History Boys has in abundance. The play first opened at the National Theatre in 2004 with an all-star cast which included the late Richard Griffiths as inspirational yet flawed teacher, Hector, and a fresh-faced James Corden as cheeky pupil, Timms. A film followed in 2006 but this new touring production, which opened at the Palace Theatre in Westcliff-on-Sea this week, reminds us that Alan Bennett’s writing really does belong on the stage. The play is based around a group of sixth form students fighting it out for a place at Oxford and Cambridge university. Yet the classroom becomes a battleground for a bigger theme – do we teach pupils simply for exams or for life in general? The audience are treated to a thought-provoking clash between archaic poetry-loving Hector, expertly played by Richard Hope, and results-driven supply teacher Irwin, whose youthful naivety with the children is encapsulated in the performance of Mark Field. The play’s snappy dialogue has something for everyone and can be compared to watching an episode of University Challenge (stay with me on this one). You might not get every historical reference or intellectual quip but they come so thick and fast, much like Jeremy Paxman furiously spewing questions in the final minutes of University Challenge, that there will always be something to entertain and amuse. But for anyone who is still worried, I can happily attest to the fact this play is not just for intellectuals – that is easily evidenced by the fact I have seen it on the stage countless times now and keep coming back for more. This new cast bring a fresh feel to the play and help highlight the emotional depth to each individual character. Performances of note include an emotional yet entertaining display by Steven Roberts as musical-loving misfit, Posner, and Kedar Williams-Sterling as cocky schoolboy, Dakin. But the standout performance has to go to Susan Twist who gives the lesser known role of Mrs Lintott a powerful significance within the intricate plot. The History Boys launched the careers of Gavin and Stacey star James Corden, Mamma Mia heart-throb Dominic Cooper and Him & Her star (and Billericay boy) Russell Tovey. With this production set to move on across the country after tonight (Saturday) I would urge anyone to take the last chance to see some future stars of stage and screen in this modern day classic.