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The History Boys

King's Theatre, Edinburgh
Three stars

It's an interesting time for the enterprising Sell A Door company to be reviving Alan Bennett's boy's school smash hit a decade after it first appeared before going on to global acclaim on stage and screen. In a post Yewtree environment when barely a day passes without reports of establishment-based indiscretions with minors, having a maverick teacher who touches up his teenage pupils on the back of his motorbike at a play's centre probably means something different today to how it did back then.

Not that Bennett's 1980s-set play, in which Richard Hope's literature loving English master Hector prepares his very own crème de la crème for Oxbridge entrance exams, aims to shock. It is so pithily written, in fact, that Hector's downfall, when it comes, is treated with almost apologetic understatement.

Kate Saxon's production heightens things from the off, with Hector's motorbike hanging at the centre of the stage above his locked classroom full of precocious aesthetes like some carefully perched museum piece. It is Mark Field's proto Gove-like Irwin who points to the future in what becomes an impressionistic hymn to an age when education was about more than curriculums and quotas and cheesy pop came packed with quotably hormonal lyrics.

What Bennett illustrates most of all is the long-term consequences of every action, be it war, an exam result or a motorbike ride past the local charity shop. As for Hector's boys, while they go on to succeed in conventional terms, as Irwin says of their essays, they become dull, dull, dull. Like him, they had all their poetry educated out of them beyond the moment that shaped them.
 
The Herald, March 20th 2015

ends

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