There is no more reliable playwright than Alan Bennett, nor one who can pick his way more shrewdly through contemporary mores to compare them with those of his youth.
The History Boys, set in a northern grammar school with pretentions towards Manchester Grammar status, is to a certain extent based on Bennett’s own experiences in the fifties, when his headmaster decided to aim his brighter boys in the direction of Oxbridge.
Thus we find a sixth form of more recent vintage, under a master from the old school, whom advancing years have made doubtful about any form of conscious learning, and his young successor, who shares his headmaster’s philosophy of targets and educational structures.
Again based on his own experiences, which included a strategy based on cards containing facts and phrases learned by heart and calculated to impress any examiner, Bennett comes up with his own, often hilarious, views on education and recollection of teachers and pupils.
Yet he also adopts the principle of the well-made play, inventing little mini-dramas as he goes – the boy who realises he is a homosexual, the one who shags the headmaster’s secretary and ends up as the richest of the lot and the lad who knows he is thick but gets into the posh college anyway because his grandad was a college servant.
The History Boys is a fascinating microcosm of England, brilliantly directed by Nicholas Hytner in Bob Crowley’s utilitarian setting and acted for all it is worth by a splendidly contrasted bunch of likely lads. Equally outstanding are the four adults – the mountainous Richard Griffiths as the older teacher, loveable and respected despite his penchant for touching up those boys selected to ride pillion on his motor bike, Stephen Campbell Moore as the young pretender who typically ends up as a TV presenter, Frances de la Tour in splendidly acid form as a teacher from whom most hope has fled and Clive Merrison as a headmaster who has something in common with Captain Mainwaring.