The History Boys: The Play

history boysALMOST FOUR MONTHS AGO I was lucky to watch Alan Bennett’s The History Boys – The Play during its one-week performance at the Opera House in Belfast. I knew it a month before the showing from the 44th Belfast Filmfest ads but I did not really bother to book or buy the ticket in advance thinking that this stage production will not get much attention from the theatre goers. I thought that way because I don’t have any idea about it except that I read a little publicity from the Filmfest brochure which did not really talk about Bennett’s credibility as an English playwriter.

Two hours before the show, I phoned the ticket office inquiring for that day’s performance and the availability of cheaper seats. Unfortunately, I was told that the whole-week schedule is ‘sold out’! I can’t believe it, but since I was desperate to watch it, I took the risk of going to the venue praying that someone will return a ticket. My prayer was answered after 30 minutes of waiting and while watching the people queuing to get inside the main theatre. I got a seat (£20) in stalls area, 20 meters away from the stage.


FOR THE BENEFITS of people who do not know about Bennett’s brilliant work, I did a little research about him as my prelude to my review. Some of his popular stage plays include Habeas Corpus, Forty Years On, Getting On, The Wind in the Willows, The Madness of George III, including several monologues from the Talking Heads collection: A Chip in the Sugar, A Lady of Letters and A Woman of No Importance (as an actor and director) which received the Laurence Olivier Award for Outstanding Entertainment and Most Outstanding Performance in a Musical or Entertainment. A Day Out, A Visit from Miss Prothero, The Old Crowd, And Englishman Abroad, and The Insurance Man are some of its work in television. In film productions he was involved in A Private Function, Prick Up Your Ears, and The Madness of King George. In 2005, Mr. Bennett published his autobiography entitled Untold Stories.

It was a coincidence while writing this review over the weekend, I also able to watch The Madness of King George shown in Channel 4. This film garnered Oscars (1994) nomination in 4 categories (Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress and Adapted Screenplay and the winner for Art Direction (Samuel Goldwyn). Being adapted from the play, The Madness of George III, the film proved Alan Bennett’s finest writing prowess, showcasing his sense of humour and his love to poetry.

The film with the same title (adapted from the play) was shown late in 2006 and one of the hopefuls for this year (2007) OSCARS award for the best actor and actress nominations. Unfortunately, I was not able to watch this, but critics gave a thumbs-up for the play’s adaptation.


THIS IS ABOUT THE EIGHT young, intelligent, funny and unruly boys in their final year at the state’s grammar school in Northern England, aspiring to be students at Oxford and Cambridge (OxCam) universities. These boys have a senior English teacher, Hector who taught General Studies quite differently – away from the traditional way of teaching. Being close to the boys, he always invites everyone to ride with his motorcycle for a lift in going home which the boys take it for fun.

Aware of Hector’s teaching method, the Headmaster decided to hire a new teacher, Mr. Irwin to train these boys on how to pass university entrance exams. Consequently, Irwin got some teaching loads from Hector and he inspired these boys to improve their answers and essays particularly on history. As the days passed Hector becomes unhappy but on the other hand, Irwin realised (through the boys’ confessions during the class) that Hector teaching is valuable to help the boys in the preparation for the entrance tests.

Is it a happy or sad ending? Well, what I can only say is that the boys were accepted in Oxford and Cambridge. How about their teacher, Hector and Mr. Irwin? Unfortunately, I can not reveal what happened to them, so in that case, why not you better book a ticket now for its West End (Wyndham’s Theatre) shows.

By the way, the play has 2 acts having a running time of almost 2 hours and 45 minutes with a15-minute break between the acts. Act 1 mainly introducing the main cast of the play, giving the audience the glimpse of the different personalities of the characters portrayed in the story, particularly the 8 boys, Hector and the rest of the academic staff. With the second act, it focused on Irwin’s teaching techniques and his conduct towards the boys; the preparation of the boys for the entrance exams; and consequently what happened to Hector, Mr. Irwin and the boys after passing the tests.


SURPRISINGLY, the stage was transformed into real classroom, office or hallway in few seconds as every scene unfolds. The physical set-up on stage provided the play the credibility for theatre goers to experience the real-to-life setting on how the teachers and boys behave in a British Grammar School during those days. The lay-out of the props (wall partitions, tables, chairs, posters on the walls, piano) added consistency to the time dimension of the play.

The use of big white screen and flat screens for the overhead projection were effective. The big screen at the centre of the stage and the two small LCD/flat screens were installed in both corners of the stalls area provided viewers both in ground and upper floors of the Opera House a clear visual presentation (in black and white) of past events. Even though projector is not popular in the 80s, but this advanced tech teaching aid was valuable – instead of dramatising the scenes for additional set-up but have just quick flashbacks of the past occasions. And most importantly, this video projection is effective enough not let people watching the show get bored or not making their eyes busy. This set-up of presentation somehow brings a different perspective on how film and theatre can work together.

There was no dancing or a grand singing performance, except that there was only one piece musical instrument, the piano set at the farthest corner of the stage which is used once in a while. The music scoring, sound and lighting were just perfectly right, except the sound during the initial part of Act 1 where the conversation among stage actors was not clear/audible.


THERES ARE SO MUCH valuable things to learn from the characters of the play. Every character brought significant contribution that made this production interesting to watch. The portrayals were realistic – it seems that I was not watching the play, but watching real students and teachers.

First and foremost the teachers: Hector, Irwin and Mrs. Lintott – representing three different techniques of teaching. Hector – someone who represents a little fraction of the teaching force nowadays. His method of teaching is quite unique with no standard footing, away from analytical method. His interests in poetry is also influenced his teaching, trying to convince his students to memorise and understand them by heart. Well his behaviour (invitation for the motorbike ride) towards the boys is another story which will be discussed later in my review.

Irwin on the other hand, is the modern type and opposite of Hector technique. He applies the analytical approach, most interested in presentation of challenging facts and arguments. And Mrs Lintott (as the only female actor in the play) represents the ‘bookish’ type of educator with personal detachment from her work which is not really inspiring for students.

The boys represent the diverse interesting personalities, providing the audience a glimpse on how every young individual from different family backgrounds is motivated to learn from their teachers, and interact/socialise with their peers. I will not introduce them all here but instead only those powerful performances of Posner, Dakin and Scripps. Posner is a Jewish gay student and in love with one of the boys, Dakin. He also loves to sing, act and very easy for him to mingle with his classmates and teachers. The portrayal of Posner of being gay but witty is the ‘entertainment’ side of the play, making the audience laugh and even giggle during his poetry recitation and outstanding singing rendition. Dakin is the good-looking young man who is love interest of Posner. His ultimate target is the secretary of the Headmaster, and at the end he tried to seduce Irwin, knowing that the new teacher is also fantasising him, aside from Posner. And Scripps’ portrayal is comical, where he always quiet – listening intensely and busy taking notes during classes. Sometimes he takes the attention of the teachers or interrupts the lecture if he misses something from the discussion.


THE PLAY PROVIDED me something to ponder as being a teacher and a student at the same time. It tackled relevant issues that teachers and students need to understand and be aware of even this play set in the early 1980s, almost two decades ago.

TEACHING METHODS/TECHNIQUES are influential in the learning curve of every young student. Approaches used in teaching plays an important role in the personal development of a student. We all know that when a child started to go to school, most of his/her time is with the teachers than with his/her parents. So, we can not ignored the influence created by the teachers to the children which some of them become their role models in their adulthood.

LEARNING (from academic community) is a continuous process and a rewarding experience. It is not solely dependent from the lecturer/teacher and from the educational system or the university itself, but it is how the student embraces learning with full of enthusiasm and be able to apply the things that have learned to the real world.

THE PLAY ALSO reminded me of our hopes and failures, not only being a teacher, a student but an individual person. Despite our weaknesses, every one of us has something to prove in our life that is worth pursuing for our own self fulfilment and happiness. Like Hector, Mr. Irwin and Posner had tried to express themselves to be accepted by their peers and do something that worth pursuing. I don’t know exactly what happened during those rides with Hector which somehow still a puzzle to me. How about the motivation of Posner for his openness affection to Dakin, and even the flirting of Dakin with Irwin? These are issues that are relevant today tackling homosexuality and paedophilia.

LASTLY, the play reminded me of my favourite films, Dead Poets Society and Mona Lisa Smiles, to some extent tackled important issues in teaching and learning, and the inter-relationships among the key actors: teachers and students.


THE TEACHERS: Hector – Stephen Moore, Irwin – Orlando Wells, Mrs. Lintott – Isla Blair, Headmaster – William Chubb

THE BOYS:Posner – Steven Webb, Dakin – Ben Barnes, Scripps – Thomas Morrison, Akthar – Marc Elliott, Crowther – Akemnji Ndifornyen, Lockwood –David Poynor, Rudge – Philip Correia, and Timms – Owain Arthur

Director: Nicholas Hytner
Recreated by: Simon Cox
Designer: Bob Crowley
Lighting Designer: Mark Henderson
Music: Richard Sisson
Sound Designer: Colin Pink

Laurence Olivier Award: Best Director – Nicholas Hytner
Laurence Olivier Award: Best New Play
Laurence Olivier Award/Critics’ Circle Award: Best Actor – Richard Griffiths
New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award/Evening Standard Award/Drama Desk Award/Drama League Award/London Critics’ Circle Award: Best Play
And 6 Tony Awards (2006), namely: Best Play, Best Lead Actor (Richard Griffiths), Best Featured Actress (Frances de la Tour), Best Lighting Design (Mark Henderson), Best Scenic Design (Bob Crowley) and Best Direction (Nicholas Hytner).

FINALLY, the premiere of the play and the second production were held at the National’s Lyttelton Theatre in May 2004 and September 2005, respectively. The 2006 UK tour production started at the middle of 2006 at Birmingham Rep.

~ by reymos on March 10, 2007.

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