Making History, with his Boys: Bennett's public school drama boosts the National

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An overweight but inspirational teacher with a tendency to touch up his favourite pupils is an unlikely hero for a hit play. But Alan Bennett's The History Boys, set in a public school, has become the latest drama from the National Theatre heading for international fame.

An overweight but inspirational teacher with a tendency to touch up his favourite pupils is an unlikely hero for a hit play. But Alan Bennett's The History Boys, set in a public school, has become the latest drama from the National Theatre heading for international fame.

The play, initially assessed by Nicholas Hytner, the theatre's director, as "funny, but not able to fill a theatre", is on course to rival past National Theatre glories such as Peter Shaffer's play on Mozart, Amadeus, and Bennett's earlier success, The Madness of George III.

Announcing that its run would now be extended to the spring and would be followed by regional and international tours, Mr Hytner admitted that the work had become one of those surprise money-making ventures that become a stalwart of the schedule.

Mr Hytner said: " The History Boys is now with Amadeus, [David Hare and Howard Brenton's] Pravda, The Madness of George III and [David Hare's] Racing Demon as plays that have done 200-odd performances here and provided a spine around which the rest of the repertoire can be organised.

"But truthfully ... I can remember coming in and saying, this is really funny, but this is not going to fill the theatre."

Its hero is played by Richard Griffiths and its subject is a fierce debate on the notion of education as a band of sixth-formers try to win a place at Oxbridge.

Yet in the hands of Bennett, a national treasure thanks to works such as his Talking Heads monologues, the story has become one of the hottest tickets in London.

After nearly 90 packed-out performances over the summer, you can now get to see a matinée in October if you are lucky. Bar the 30 or so seats released only on the day, most people will otherwise have to wait until November at the earliest.

It is currently booking until January but is set to be extended until April. It will be one of two plays - with Martin McDonagh's black and disturbing play The Pillowman, which starred Jim Broadbent - which will then go on a regional tour before travelling abroad at the beginning of 2006.

Details of the 16-week regional tour are still being finalised, but likely venues for the two works include Newcastle, Salford, Brighton, Leeds, Malvern and Sheffield. Regional work is being expanded after a review.

"We want to send out our newest work, the stuff we're really pleased with. That's what it seems to me the National Theatre can provide in this country - the stuff on the edge."

Mr Hytner, who directed both The History Boys and The Madness of George III, on stage and film, said there had been discussions about the play following Jumpers and Democracy, two other recent successes, to Broadway. But nothing had yet been confirmed.

The plans for The History Boys, which opened in May, were revealed yesterday at the launch of the National Theatre's annual review, which showed that 2003-04, Mr Hytner's first year in office, had been the most successful in attracting audiences in the history of the theatre.

Its three auditoriums - the Olivier, the Lyttelton and the Cottesloe - were 91 per cent full with paying audiences, up from 80 per cent in 2002-03 and from 72 per cent five years ago, a figure unsurpassed in living memory.

Christopher Hogg, who has presided over three successive artistic directors as chairman of the board, said: "I don't think there's anything to come anywhere near it in the National's history."

A major factor had been the radical decision to present a season of works for £10 in the Olivier Theatre, thanks to sponsorship from Travelex.

Mr Hytner said the £10 tickets had not just been a good thing in themselves but had proved a huge enticement to new audiences to try a programme which mixed classics by Shakespeare and Euripides with new political work by David Hare and even the opera based on the Jerry Springer television show.

"It was a huge signal that we were really anxious for everybody who wanted to to try us."

The high audience figures meant the theatre ended the year with a £48,000 surplus on operations, instead of a deficit of £500,000 which had been agreed with the board at the beginning of the year against increases in Arts Council grants due in coming years.

"What we've learnt is that the bolder we are and the higher the road we take, the more our audience is responding. We're finding that if we programme boldly, we're rewarded by higher audience figures."

Mr Hytner said there had been a genuine increase in government support for the arts, both nationally and in the regions, which the public appeared to be enjoying.

"Over the last two or three years, there seems to have been a noticeable sea-change in the way the public at large have taken the subsidised arts network to their hearts. There's a climate now of increased appreciation and enjoyment of the kind of things we provide."

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