I like a bit of ’Off-the-Wall’ comedy. Not for me the humour of a sit-com. No, I was brought up on ‘Monty Python’. Of course, that had its roots in a programme called ‘That Was The Week That Was’ which in turn followed the groundbreaking ‘Beyond The Fringe’, which was spawned by the University Reviews staged at The Edinburgh Festival in the late 50’s. And one of the writers and performers who came out of that group – alongside Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, who were favourites of my Dad and two of my older cousins – was Alan Bennett. But there’s a lot more than just comedy to his play ‘The History Boys’, being staged by The Sell A Door Theatre Company at The Kings this week.
The story is about eight ‘A’ Level schoolboys who have returned to their state school for an extra term, to be prepared for sitting the now defunct ‘Oxbridge’ entrance exams. It’s set in the 1980’s, some 20 odd years after Bennett himself went through the experience which saw him getting a place at both Oxford and Cambridge Universities. And it’s no surprise when you learn that his subject was History, that the play has that as its central theme.
The boys are from differing backgrounds and, although obviously all bright, are portrayed as having varying levels of intelligence. The school staff on the other hand, the Headmaster and the three teachers, are all very different, with widely differing goals for their charges. The Headmaster just wants his school to do well in the league tables; Mr Hector, the English teacher has no time for the Oxbridge exams; Mrs Lintott, their History mistress, just wants what’s best; and Mr Irwin has been brought in especially to tutor them in passing this one exam. Against this background the story unfolds, revealing the different characters and a whole host of secrets along the way.
There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, but there are thought provoking ones too. Although set over 30 years ago, our present-day system is still lumbered with some of the issues raised. The pains and challenges of growing up haven’t changed though, and I’m sure everyone can identify with that part of the story. The differing ways of teaching however might be less familiar to a younger audience (although I had no problem recognising the older style!).
Very unusually, I’m not going to praise any single performance; the cast were all equally brilliant in their portrayal of the characters. Amongst the adults, two have more prominent parts to play, and amongst the boys, four of them have more lines. But each person on stage has an equal part to play in making the production so compelling.
If I have one criticism of this production, it is that the set – or was it the lighting? – did not always make it easy to follow the plot. But Bennett’s script is so well written that you very quickly got back on track.
All in all, a good production of an excellent play which was a pleasure to watch.