12 February 2011

History Boys at the Rose Theatre

Only three months after visiting the Rose Theatre in Kingston I was back there to see another comedy.

Somehow I had not seen History Boys before, on stage or on screen, but I knew some of Alan Bennett's work (and not just his readings of Winnie the Pooh either) so had some idea of what to expect.

The Rose Theatre as a venue still disappoints. The reception area gives every appearance of being an odd area left over after the theatre was built that could have housed props or costumes but somebody decided to put a bar in there instead. They should have put one or two more bar staff and a wider choice of drinks as well so that I would not have to wait so long just to get a bottle of Beck's.

Inside the theatre itself a reasonable, but not full, crowd ignored the unfinished look that other venues manage to carry with more confidence and settled down to be entertained.

History Boys tells the story of a class of boys at a grammar school who, having got good A Level results are now trying for Oxford. The school does not have a strong record here and so the desperate Head brings in an additional teacher just to coach them for this.

Their current history teacher, Hector, wants the boys to gain knowledge for its own sake and also wanders wildly off the curriculum. In one extreme example the boys act out a visit to a brothel in French.

Hector also has a reputation for fondling the boys as he gives them lifts on his motorbike but they accept this (and even enjoy it in some cases) and they take it in turns to ride with him.

The new teacher, Irwin, admires the boys' knowledge but calls all their essays dull, or worse, as all they have done is regurgitate facts. He encourages the boys to look at historical events from another perspective and even gets them to question the standard assumptions about the Holocaust, for which he gets a written complaint from a Jewish boy's parents.

The play explores themes of knowledge, sexuality, honesty, race and class. Rather what you would expect from Alan Bennett.

The story flows nicely. It's mostly linear but with a couple of flash-forwards to let us see how some of the characters developed.

Irwin is the strongest single character but the stretch of the play is in the ensemble of boys who speaking intelligently and wittily and who also do some song and dance routines that entertain and also provide a break from the relentlessly quick dialogue.

History Boys is amusing throughout and is often funny too in a laugh-out-loud way and while there is nothing especially consequential in any of its musings its also serious enough and intelligent enough to keep the Guardian reading Radio 4 listeners very happy.

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