Kim Tobin (MyTownSouthend)

    Needs to be seen Called “One of the finest plays Alan Bennett has ever written” by the Daily Telegraph, The History Boys opened at the National Theatre in 2004 to rave reviews and a sell-out run and went on to become one of the National’s biggest ever hits. In a recent national survey this comic masterpiece was voted the nation’s favourite play. It also helped rise to fame names such as James Corden, Dominic Cooper and Russell Tovey who, along with the exceptional Richard Griffiths, playing teacher Hector, went on to star in the film version of the play in 2006. The History Boys starts its new touring run at Southend on Sea this week and we were lucky enough to be in the audience. It’s the story of a group of bright, funny and unruly sixth-formers in pursuit of sex, sport and a place at university. Their maverick English teacher is at odds with the young and shrewd supply teacher, whilst their headmaster is obsessed with results and league tables. Staffroom rivalry and the anarchy of adolescence overflow, provoking insistent questions about history and how you teach it. You are immediately swept into the 1980s classroom scenario with the musical sounds of the era being played in the auditorium. Director, Kate Saxon, has her work cut out with The Palace Theatre stage, not only with its rather deep rake but also, it would seem, with the width of the stage proving to be slight problem for fluidity. The cast, however, seemed to take it all in their stride and the set looks amazing and works extremely well. Hector, played by Richard Hope with a surprisingly southern English accent (I thought he was supposed to be from Sheffield - no matter), is the flawed yet inspirational teacher who has no programme, who believes, to quote Housman, "all knowledge is precious whether or not it serves the slightest human use”. The boys, it would seem, learn more from him than any other teacher because of the way he teaches; and let’s face it, the teachers we all remember with fondness probably weren’t the one’s who got the school the best grades but the ones where we learned subliminally in a fun atmosphere. Hector's flaw and it is a big one, is to grope his pupils while they ride pillion on his motorbike. The boys though all consider this to be a bit of a joke and just tolerate it as part of the price of his eccentric teaching style. No harm done? We’ll see. Mrs Lintott, played sassily by Susan Twist, as the history teacher, believes that what the boys require is a firm foundation of fact and Mark Field as the cynical Irwin is the teacher, barely older than the boys themselves, brought in by ambitious Headmaster, Christopher Ettridge, to get the boys into Oxbridge. Irwin considers the truth to be something that can be manipulated to impress examiners but the boys don’t seem to want to buy into that belief. Each one of these performers makes us believe that what they want for their pupils is the right thing to do. We can empathise with all of these teachers but somehow Hector, despite his ‘over fondness’ for his boys, is the teacher that we really want to like and whose side we are on, even though perhaps we feel we shouldn’t. All of the boys work well together and I especially enjoyed the French scene which was done to great comedic effect. Likewise one of my favourite parts of the show was when two of the pupils ‘play act’ a scene from Brief Encounter, maybe because Brief Encounter is one of my guilty pleasures (don’t tell), but anyway, it made me and the audience laugh out loud. Steven Roberts was outstanding as Posner, the young Jewish kid struggling with his sexuality and Kedar Williams-Stirling as Dakin showed us some great comic timing along with a really sensitive, and believable performance. Another stand out performance was from Alex Hope as the religious, piano playing Scripps who reminded me of a young Benedict Cumberbatch. Joshua Mayes-Cooper also made me laugh as Timms. This play runs at a good pace with quick scene changes filled with a great 80s soundtrack and provides many thought provoking moments. If you are easily offended by bad language, then I suggest you cover your ears but don’t let it put you off seeing this great production. What actually strikes me about this play, is that really not much has changed within the educational system from when it was set, in the Eighties, to now. Issues are still just as relevant today as they were back then. Teenagers are still struggling to learn life lessons from their teachers because the constraints of the educational system force teachers to continually hit Government targets. It must be a constant battle. So, do they get into University or not? Will the teachers achieve job satisfaction? Will the Headmaster get his school the grades he wants? What do you actually learn from school, what do you retain, where do qualifications essentially get you in life? What is the true purpose of education? Well, you’ll have to go and find out for yourselves, I couldn’t possible spoil it for you. But, I am going to take on board Hector’s closing words of the play and “Take it, feel it, pass it on.” The History Boys needs to be seen, whatever age you are.