'History Boy' Bennett to give Broadway an English lesson

Americans given a 'glossary to Limey learning'
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The Independent Culture

They have charmed Middle England, Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong. But can Alan Bennett's History Boys take New York?

Tomorrow, the same team first brought together by director Nicholas Hytner at the National in London two years ago will take the stage of the Broadhurst Theatre, Broadway. And the buzz around a play initially assessed by Hytner as "funny, but not able to fill a theatre" is extraordinary.

Bennett, the wry northerner who originally wowed America with the Beyond the Fringe revue four decades ago, has even featured on the pages of American Vogue to discuss the play's theme - which of two contrasting teaching styles can secure a gang of sixth-formers a place at Oxbridge.

He said: "That's the way I operated when I was preparing for my exams. I always felt that I did well on totally false pretenses."

Richard Griffiths, whose wife convinced him to play the inspirational, but maverick, teacher against his better judgement, is being already tipped for a Tony, New York's equivalent of an Olivier award.

Queues of younger fans are emulating excitable scenes at the National's stage door, apparently attracted by the younger actors playing The History Boys of the title. And Time Out New York has gamely produced a guide to the British education system for those baffled by the way public schools in the UK are really private and the intricacies of A-levels.

"It's lovely," said Hytner, who flew out to New York yesterday for the opening. "It's huge fun because everything is so enlarged and glittering and extravagant [on Broadway]. They applaud twice as loud and laugh twice as loud and everybody is so much more excitable than here." He said he was not worried about whether Americans would understand the play, despite the differences between the educational systems. "It has proved universal," he said. "Everywhere we have gone, that debate has appeared to be top of the agenda."

Bob Boyett, the American producer who backed the transfer, agreed that some of the details of British life - such as where and what was Sheffield - eluded him, but the meaning was clear. "I felt immediately we should bring it here," he said.

That proved easier than he could have imagined because the "magnificent cast" even wowed American Equity, the actors' union. It agreed that all 17 of the original cast should perform - an exceptional decision in contrast with the norm of allowing only a foreign play's leads to transfer.

Tomorrow's opening may be less starry than the week's celebrity opening, Julia Roberts' Broadway debut in Three Days of Rain, but the play is attracting serious New York theatre-lovers who normally wait to see reviews.

The play has already joined the ranks of National Theatre blockbusters such as Peter Shaffer's Amadeus in its sell-out success on home turf and is now a firm favourite with all involved.

Bennett is well known in America, but his work has not been seen on Broadway since Habeus Corpus in 1975. Hytner said: "Everything appears to be going right. But you never know."

In an attempt to make a performance of The History Boys more comprehensible, Time Out New York has produced its own "glossary to Limey learning".

Faced with a vocabulary that includes unfamiliar phrases such as "sixth-formers", "Oxbridge" and "dons," the entertainment magazine clearly felt obliged to assist.

"Sixth-formers", Robert Simonson explained, were a consequence of "an archaic numbering system" - and one, incidentally, that applied two decades ago, the period in which the play is set, but has since been scrapped.

"Dons", as used by Bennett in a rather old-fashioned usage, refer to "plain ordinary professors" and not the Mafia. "Oxbridge" is a term Simonson thought his more Anglophile readers would know: "a linguistic conflation of Oxford and Cambridge, the biggest groves of English academe". It is Oxbridge to which the headmaster in The History Boys aspires to send his brightest boys. "A-levels" are more obscure, but, it is explained, are the advanced level of the General Certificate of Education.

Finally, Time Out addresses the curious issue of how public schools are really private: "Public schools are actually not for the great unwashed. They were set up in the 19th-century to serve, yes, the public. But since poor folks couldn't afford not to send their kiddies to the salt mines, public schools filled up with scions of the privileged classes."