For a variety of reasons, we couldn't make it to the Nottingham performances of Bennett's 2004 National Theatre smash-hit. So it was lucky that we had friends who got us tickets for the Warwick Arts Centre performances for the next week on in the tour. It was certainly worthwhile...
So far, The History Boys has taken the London stage by storm, gone down exceptionally well in NYC and with plenty of enthusiastic reviews is taking pretty full houses all round the country in the current tour. A radio broadcast (and CD version) of the play has been done. And the barely altered film version is imminent in the cinema.
So is it any good?
Well, it IS a play of two halves. The first half is so astonishingly good - witty, sharp, moving and bristling with great lines - that it is mostly this brilliance that makes the second half seem so much more pedestrian. Partly, the derives from the apparant need to offer a considerable amount of resolution, but also to drive the plot in melodramatic directions. It is still great entertainment, and head and shoulders above a lot of recent theatre, but the second half just cannot scale the heights achieved by the opening half. The narrative arc (sympathy, revelation, destruction) somewhat undermines the range of ideas and contradictions that make the opening so stunning.
That said, it is both a wonderful play and a wonderful production. Bennett is one of those playwrights who can charm and delight often prissy middle-class audiences into gleeful unblinking delight at his writing, even when it includes some BBC-warning-"VERYstronglanguage"-speeches. (The 60-something gran who swapped seats with her grandson to sit next to us seemed far less put out by the littering of f- and c-words than she was by the nearby braying hooray Henrietta's whooping cheers* for the final applause and bows).
After such an astonishing original cast - Griffiths and De La Tour - casting can prove crucial in convincing an audience. Not only do you have to find some sympathy with the 'fiddling' Hector (ably played by Stephen Moore, a familiar British TV and theatre actor), but you also have to believe in the boys themselves. I never expected anything less than a great performance from Thomas Morrison as Scripps (played with a similar kind of watchful youthful pleasure and anguish as he bought to his role as Danny Holden), but Stephen Webb was just heart-breaking as Posner. Deliciously camp but utterly believable in his behaviour, his doomed adoration of the fey, fickle and self-awaredly 'handsome' Daykin (Ben Barnes) is beautifully conveyed: both were well praised in the review of the Nottingham performances. I would also dare to say that although I have only seen stills from the original cast production, Barnes was a far more 'pretty boy' Daykin than Dominic Cooper, who has far more 'rough edges' in his physical portrayal.
With its eclectic enthusiasm for culture over formal, quantifiably assessable education-as-(one bloody)-qualification (after another), the play taps into all manner of pet hobby-horses for Guardian and Independent readers. However, in placing the flawed, and potentially to some minds dangerous, Hector as our first rock of sympathy and appeal, Bennett challenges us to look beyond simple explanations and definitions. If you haven't seen the play yet, try and do so. If not, get to see the film. But keep an eye out for the progress of the cast of boys: I hope, and trust, they will go on to some great things in the future.
* Seriously, I think she'd been watching some overdose of 1930s cowboy-'n'-injun films, such was the stunning awfulness of her hollering whoops. If she'd have sat next to me, I'd have been tempted to gag her.