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You saw the play (three times at the National Theatre in my case), you’ve listened to the audio CD, you’ve seen the film . . . So now see the play again. I speak, of course, of Alan Bennett’s 2004 play The History Boys. Even so, I am happily amazed to find how many layers it reveals, how many gems it contains.
It takes, I think, the material of Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love (the themes of knowledge, literature, language, grammar, poetry and literary criticism, history, education, knowledge, an all-male college, unrequited homosexual love for a heterosexual, all as remembered years later), re-invents it in a format that is a gender-reversal update of Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and is funnier than either. My only regret is Bennett has not revised the play to absorb the best changes he made to it when writing the film. The play’s flaw is it makes all three of its homosexual characters suffer grim fates (the afterlife of young Posner is gratuitously pathetic and feels like an accidental vestige of homophobia in Bennett, leaving a bad aftertaste). The film corrected that touchingly.
When the DVD comes out, I will cherish its record of the original cast, as I do on the audio CD. But The History Boys works best in the theatre, and, though Orlando Wells’s account of Irwin is at present too tense and exaggerated, there are ways in which the current cast is yet better. William Chubb’s Headmaster, for example, is more multi-dimensional than was Clive Merrison’s, and Owain Arthur is exuberant as Timms. Stephen Moore’s Hector is not remotely like Richard Griffith’s, but there are two moments when I would want anything added to his marvellously rounded interpretation: crisper consonants in his opening scene and a greater sense of melancholy behind the speech on compound adjectives. Nicholas Hytner’s production allows his actors to rediscover the characters without fitting them into the original moulds. You come out talking of Posner, Irwin, Hector – and education, education, education.