The History Boys
It was no surprise to find that Alan Bennett’s biggest West End hit since The Madness of George III should follow it to the silver screen, given the cash it generated, but one wonders whether its producers might have taken into account other factors before commissioning this project. For this National Theatre smash of 2004 revolved around a succession of theatrical turns in a manner that George III didn’t, the latter being more inherently cinematic in both technique and content. For all that, Nick Hytner’s production manages to maintain some of the humour and pathos of the original.
The story, for the sake of any benighted folk unfamiliar with the theatre, follows the progress of a group of boys in a Sheffield Grammar School of the early 80s, who, having completed their A Levels to positive effect are now sitting Oxbridge entrance exams. They are torn between an old buffer of an art for art’s sake teacher (Richard Griffiths) with the occasional penchant for fondling the boys during motorbike rides home, and a colder, more pragmatic teacher (Stephen Campbell Moore) a young repressed gay who thinks of the teaching of history as a game played against examiners, rather than a thing of value it itself. Between them there’s no suggestion of Dead Poet Society sentimentalism versus dark bureaucracy, for each is flawed, slightly unlikeable, but fraught with pathos. The boys are in fact much less repressed, though the young Jewish gay boy Posner’s (Samuel Barnett) crush on the precocious and amoral school wideboy Dakin (Dominic Cooper) creates emotional tension.
Hynter’s refrain of his theatre production mystifyingly removes the prologue of the play, which tells us so much of subsequent history personal and political, and quite crucially alters the fate of a central character, somewhat diminishing his final punch. All the same, the quickfire dialogue is still funny, and Bennett’s melancholic observations about the teaching of history within the new Thatcherite order continues to pack a slightly diminished punch. And while such cheerfully sexually polymorphous boys might seem a little like wish fulfilment on Bennett’s part, the soundtrack, featuring the likes of The Smiths, The Cure and The Clash, brings a nicely nostalgic feel that should propel you through the story.