The History Boys

Norwich Theatre Royal

> Theatre Royal, Norwich

The uses of history and the value of learning for its own sake are the chief subjects of Alan Bennett's wonderfully thought-provoking play.

Set in a Sheffield secondary school in the 1980s, The History Boys sees a riotous class of prospective Oxbridge entrants handle the varying approaches of their teachers. Pitted against them all is the league-table obsessed headteacher, who acknowledges of the old-fashioned teacher Hector that “there's inspiration… but how do I quantify that?”

Bennett's script fizzes with memorable one-liners, many of which could hardly fail to deliver a laugh, and in the hands of this talented touring cast the audience were regularly in stitches.

Having loved the original award-winning production at the National Theatre, I had wondered whether the new actors could live up to expectations.

But on the whole the delivery is faultless, and Desmond Barrit brings a downbeat subtlety to Hector. Amid the hectic swirl of undisciplined lessons, in which the boys are prone to breaking into snatches of song or staging camp re-enactments of romantic films, the quiet heart of the play lies in a calm and poignant scene just before the interval. Hector has been freshly outed as a groper of boys, and Barrit's shift in tone from his previous buoyancy to dejection is wonderfully subtle as he discusses Thomas Hardy's use of poetic adjectives with the young Jewish student Posner, who is addressing his own homosexuality from the opposite end of a lifetime. “Unkissed… unrejoicing… unconfessed… unembracing,” mutters Hector, and the entire audience feels for his personal decline and the loss of educational values that he represents.

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