The History Boys by Alan Bennett at Cheltenham Everyman

The cast of The History Boys / Photo: Darren Bell

The cast of The History Boys / Photo: Darren Bell - Credit: Archant

A play about education? The only dry thing about The History Boys is Alan Bennett’s wit, says Katie Jarvis of this wonderful, wonderful, not-to-be-missed production running from March 30 to April 4.

The History Boys

The History Boys - Credit: Archant

There are those delicious stories (who cares if they’re apocryphal?) about the Oxbridge interviews, of course. The don who, insouciantly reading The Times, drawled to a candidate, “Entertain me”; the candidate, allegedly, set fire to his newspaper. Or – my own particular favourite – the entrance exam with the question, “What is a risk?” According to Oxbridge lore, one hopeful wrote, “This is”, walked out of the exam leaving the rest blank, and was awarded a scholarship.

Let’s call that the Hector School of Education.

Then there are the examples we can all draw on, such as the experience of my daughter, sitting GCSE religious studies at a school high up in the league tables. During a mock exam, she answered the question, “Why do people believe in God?” Her essay included her theory that people were comforted by the idea of a loving deity. By the side of this point, a teacher had chided, “This is not part of the model answer.”

Let’s call that the Irwin School of Education.

You probably don’t need me to tell you that Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys is sublime. You might need me to tell you that the Everyman production, by Sell A Door (possibly one of the most beautiful combinations of sounds in the English language) Theatre Company, does it utter, utter justice. Brilliantly directed by Kate Saxon, if this production were an Oxbridge candidate, it would be awarded an instant exhibition at Magdalen (and definitely know how to pronounce it). Like the boys themselves, I couldn’t take my eyes off Richard Hope as Hector who couldn’t keep his hands off the boys. (“I didn’t want to turn out boys who in later life had a deep love of literature, or who would talk in middle age of the lure of language and their love of words. Words said in that reverential way that is somehow Welsh.”)

So let’s backtrack a little. Bennett’s play follows eight students studying history at a Sheffield grammar in the 1980s, preparing hopefully for Oxbridge entry. They’re all bright – no question of that – but each of their teachers knows that almost every potential Oxbridge student offers the kind of A level results that set the heavenly host naively rejoicing. Dons are far harder to please.

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These candidates need something extra. The question is, what? For the young supply-teacher, Irwin, the answer lies in contrary intellect and clever positing: the Holocaust can be viewed in the same context as the Dissolution of the Monasteries, he tells the boys, including Posner (“I’m a Jew... I’m small... I’m homosexual... and I live in Sheffield... I’m f***d”).

The charismatic Hector, however, considers A levels a “cheat’s visa” and general studies “useless knowledge”. Hector sees that education is about understanding, not learning; about improving life, not knowledge; about self-containment, not showing off; about a thirst for the world, past and present, that consumes for its own sake:

The History Boys

The History Boys - Credit: Archant

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.”

And he thinks all these things while cradling the boys’ nether regions as he takes them pillion on his motorbike.

The funny thing is, like the boys, it’s Hector we love. It’s Hector, with his paedophilic ways, who inspires us. Irwin we feel sorry for; even when we learn (if we study the origins of the play) that Bennett used Irwin’s techniques to gain places in both Cambridge and Oxford.

This was a production that flew by. The boys were excellent, but no more so than the wonderful all-singing, all-confused Posner (brought to life by Steven Roberts ex of Hollyoaks fame); and Scripps (Alex Hope), whose combination of religious fervour and down-to-earth sense provides many of the subtler laughs.

And there are many laughs, as well as pain. Mark Field’s Irwin is perfect; Christopher Ettridge as headmaster and Susan Twist as Mrs Lintott are also excellent. But Richard Hope? My word. It’s not the easiest of tasks to make us sympathise with this complex character, but there can’t have been many in the audience who wouldn’t have fleetingly considered riding pillion for a teacher like that. (Don’t think I’m belittling the significance of this; neither, of course, does Bennett. Our reactions, framed by a timewarp, are an element of the equation we’re asked to balance.)

It is, at times, a challenging play, not least the scenes in French (but, as they’re set in a brothel, the actions speak louder). The only annoying thing about that is always the section of audience determined to laugh in a way that forces you to acknowledge their erudition. (Honestly, guys; keep it for Shakespeare comedies.)

In theory, the questions this play asks could be as dry as dust. In practice, the only dry thing about Bennett is his consummate wit. And also in practice, these dry questions are ones we should be asking more and more, as our children jump through hoops of fire, sometimes to end up being consumed by the fire itself.

I once went to a talk by David Blunkett, responsible for a deal of modern education policy. During audience questions, I asked whether he worried – as did I – that we were teaching our children to pass exams, rather than to love learning. “No!” he replied, emphatically. At the end of his hour-and-a-half session, I thought to myself, what a lovely, lovely, well-behaved dog.

The cast of The History Boys / Photo: Darren Bell

The cast of The History Boys / Photo: Darren Bell - Credit: Archant


• The Everyman Theatre is at Regent Street, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire GL50 1HQ, box office 01242 572573;