Alan Bennett's 'History Boys' scoops New York critics' awards

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The Independent Culture

But New York's scribes had almost nothing but praise for the transfer to Broadway of the London National Theatre's surprise hit, The History Boys by Alan Bennett. Nineteen drama critics from the New York Post to The Wall Street Journal, who together make up the New York Drama Critics' Circle, have honoured Bennett's distinctively English work on the theme of education as the best play of the 2005-06 season. The production has already scooped almost every prize going in Britain.

The latest award, traditionally seen as a precursor to the prestigious Tony awards, will be presented at a cocktail reception at the legendary Algonquin Hotel where the Critics' Circle was founded in 1935 by journalists including Walter Winchell and Robert Benchley.

In selecting a best play by a British playwright, the critics had the option to hand out a separate award to an American play but declined. Last month, the board of the Pulitzer Prize also failed to hand out an award for distinguished American drama, in an apparent indictment of the state of US playwriting.

Yet it is a vote of confidence in the National Theatre team and for Bennett, whose work was last seen on Broadway with Habeas Corpus in 1975. As Ben Brantley wrote in The New York Times: "A beloved and ubiquitous figure in Britain, where playwrights enjoy a celebrity unknown to their American counterparts, Mr Bennett has never developed an equivalent following stateside."

He looks set to do so now. Brantley said the production, involving the entire original cast of 17 from the London show, had "a seductive polish that New York audiences have seldom experienced of late".

John Lahr of the New Yorker praised its "superb direction" by Nicholas Hytner, the National Theatre's director, while Howard Kissell of the New York Daily News heaped praise upon the cast. Richard Griffiths, who plays the teacher the boys adore, puts in "an astonishing performance" while Frances de la Tour "has every line etched in acid". The boys, he said, are "all splendid".

"Under Nicholas Hytner's direction, History Boys is a reminder of how entertaining, stimulating and exhilarating an evening in the theatre can be," Kissell concluded.

The play has already had two successful runs in London, a regional tour and a world tour involving New Zealand, Australia and Hong Kong. And now it has seduced America despite being packed with unfamiliar expressions and even, it was noted, one scene conducted entirely in French.

The play tells the story of eight sixth-form students and their efforts to get to university under the tutelage of a maverick English teacher, played by Griffiths, and a headmaster obsessed with results.

The day after opening to rave reviews it grossed more than $400,000 (£212,000) in ticket sales. Its playwright and stars have been fêted on television and radio and widely in print. By contrast, far starrier projects, such as the Broadway debut of Julia Roberts in the play, Three Days of Rain, have bombed critically.

The New York critics did, however, give a "special citation" for a new Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd and named The Drowsy Chaperone, an escapist spoof of a 1920s song and dance show, as best musical.

With nominations for the Tony awards due on Tuesday, where other British contenders might include Ralph Fiennes and Ian McDiarmid, the National Theatre was staying cool yesterday, but evidently hoping that the New York critics' thumbs-up augurs well.

"Obviously we're delighted for Alan Bennett and the cast," a spokeswoman said.

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