Bennett's 'History Boys' goes to top of the class at critics' awards

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Alan Bennett, who gave up his job as a history teacher to launch his career as a dramatist 40 years ago, has won a prestigious award for his latest play, which returns to the theme of the classroom.

Alan Bennett, who gave up his job as a history teacher to launch his career as a dramatist 40 years ago, has won a prestigious award for his latest play, which returns to the theme of the classroom.

The History Boys, set at a Yorkshire grammar school in the 1980s, which premiered in April last year at the National Theatre, was named the best new play at the Critics' Circle Theatre Awards yesterday.

The History Boys, directed by Nicholas Hytner, explores the conflicting teaching methods of a maverick teacher, played by Richard Griffiths (also recognised by the Critics' Circle as best actor), and a technocrat coaching a class of boys through the Oxford University pre-entry exams. The play questions the premium laid on examinations.

For Bennett, the accolade is an acknowledgement of his work as a serious political comment on the education system and not just light-heartened entertainment. Speaking to The Independent yesterday, he reflected on the reception for his first play, Forty Years On, which critics of the day perceived as a raucous comedy, and said he was thrilled by the broader understanding of his work today.

"A play is no less serious because it is funny. My first play 40 years ago was not thought to be serious because it was so funny, but it was a serious play none the less. Most of my plays have lots of jokes in them but this was taken seriously as a play, so at least some things have improved," he said.

"This is not a complaint so much as an observation. I am not losing any sleep over it. People think if something is funny and enjoyable then it is therefore not serious, but it is of course. It is both funny and sad and that's the best thing to be."

After the ceremony at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, where he was presented with the accolade by the Independent critic Paul Taylor, he said he was delighted to receive the honour, which comes 12 years after he won the same title for the television series Talking Heads.

Mel Brooks' The Producers was voted best musical. The comedy, which opened in the West End in November last year, is expected to reap more glory at the Laurence Olivier Awards. Since opening with the British comic Lee Evans and the acclaimed actor Nathan Lane, it has proved a huge hit with critics and audiences alike.

Two other popular musicals, Sir Cameron Mackintosh's Mary Poppins and Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Woman in White, failed to win any awards.

Victoria Hamilton won best actress for Suddenly Last Summer, while the award for best Shakespearean performance was won by Paul Rhys for Measure for Measure at the National Theatre. Other awards included: Rufus Norris, best director for Festen at the Almeida; Rebecca Lenkiewicz, most promising playwright for The Night Season; Christopher Oram, best designer for Suddenly Last Summer; and Eddie Redmayne, most promising newcomer (other than a playwright).

THE CRITICS' CIRCLE THEATRE AWARDS

BEST NEW PLAY

'The History Boys' by Alan Bennett

BEST MUSICAL

'The Producers' by Mel Brooks

BEST ACTOR

Richard Griffiths for 'The History Boys'

BEST ACTRESS

Victoria Hamilton for 'Suddenly Last Summer'

BEST DIRECTOR

Rufus Norris for 'Festen'

BEST SHAKESPEAREAN PERFORMANCE

Paul Rhys for 'Measure for Measure'

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