REVIEW: The History Boys by Alan Bennett at Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday, July 11.

SWS 27 Ents History Boys

SWS 27 Ents History Boys - Credit: Archant

The History Boys by Alan Bennett at Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday, July 11. Review by ANGELA SINGER.

We were beguiled again, wild again….we had the moon and the stars. This production of Alan Bennett’s inspirational play is a joy and a delight. It sparkles.

As Bennett says: “There is nothing so distant as the recent past.”

This is a clever play is about cleverness and how it was once cherished. It is set in boys’ grammar school in the 1980s. In those days, pupils with A grades at A level would return to school for one more term to prepare for the Oxbridge entrance exam. (Now replaced by an interview).

The grammar schools have been replaced too. And with their going, the door slammed shut on the social mobility they nurtured.

But back in the day, the history boys’ teacher Hector (an immaculate and understated performance from Richard Hope) believes in knowledge for the pure enjoyment of it. He has taught his pupils the way you share with your own children the things that brought you happiness.

His class can sing Edith Piaf’s songs. They can play out Bette Davis’s lines from Now Voyager, they spontaneously relive Celia Johnson’s anguish from Brief Encounter. It’s all several generations out of date and as he says: “It has nothing to do with getting on.”

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Their frustrated headmaster, concerned about the league tables (Christopher Ettridge’s well-observed character recognised by anyone who ever went to school) employs bright young master Irwin to shake up the boys’ ideas and bring them into the right half of the 20th century.

Irwin (Mark Field’s palpably earnest and embarrassed teacher in his first job) tells them that to impress the dons at Cambridge they must turn the usual arguments on their head and challenge every standard assumption: Find the kind side of Stalin. Hector has taught them about truth. Suddenly, truth doesn’t matter. It’s how you structure your argument.

Each of the eight boys has his own character. Posner, (Steven Roberts) who laments that being gay, Jewish and living in Sheffield he is “stuffed” (I paraphrase) sings beautifully. But then they all do. Their harmonies are delightful as are their performances. So real you can smell their satchels.

This is a fast-paced, funny production which warms the heart. It will stay in the mind and in the memory.