The History Boys, National Theatre

The sprinklers go off but nothing can rain on Bennett's parade
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The Independent Culture

A red letter night, by any reckoning. But there was melodrama before the drama proper when a small fire in the light rigging caused the sprinklers to go off and suddenly there wasn't a dry stage in the theatre. It was a case of all hands on deck mopping the flooded area with towels and the show eventually opened an hour after schedule. But it would have taken much more than a few sprinklers to rain on this parade.

A red letter night, by any reckoning. But there was melodrama before the drama proper when a small fire in the light rigging caused the sprinklers to go off and suddenly there wasn't a dry stage in the theatre. It was a case of all hands on deck mopping the flooded area with towels and the show eventually opened an hour after schedule. But it would have taken much more than a few sprinklers to rain on this parade.

For the first time since 1991, when his The Madness of George III premiered in the Lyttelton, Alan Bennett had a new work opening at the National. The South Bank flagship has been the scene of some of his most striking successes - the adaptation of The Wind in the Willows and Single Spies, which placed a reigning monarch as a character on the stage of what was then the Royal National Theatre.

The History Boys reunites the dramatist with the director and artistic chief at the National, Nicholas Hytner.

Once again, this is a match that seems to have been made in heaven, for Hytner pays the material in the new piece the deep respect of a superbly cast production that is fully attuned to the play's hilarity, its acute wisdom and its unforced intimations of pain, emotional isolation and tragedy.

There's a symmetry to the occasion. Alan Bennett's career as a stage dramatist began in 1968 with Forty Years On, an end-of-term play-within-a-play located in a minor public school. Now, close to 40 years on, the new work returns to a place of learning, but this time it's a boys' grammar school in Yorkshire in the early 1980s.

Putting ideas into boys' heads: from one point of view, that's the definition of education. But it's typical of the English mistrust of things intellectual that the phrase also has a dubious edge. For the old headmaster in Forty Years On, it was why he disliked the word "education" and preferred the word "schooling", much to the frustration of his more progressive successor-designate.

The ideological battle lines in the staff room are a good deal bloodier in The History Boys. The focus here is on the school's Oxbridge candidates as they prepare to sit the seventh term entry exams. The early Eighties setting means that the play is at the start of the Thatcherite educational culture that became obsessed with "results" at the expense of properly thinking about what kind of results (in terms of unquantifiable outcome) we should be looking for when educating the young.

This nascent trend is bad news for Hector, a maverick English teacher whose view is that "exams are the enemy of education, which is not to say that I don't think education is the enemy of education".

His erratic, "untargeted" humanity is beautifully captured by Richard Griffiths. Hector has homosexual leanings that the boys take advantage of, taking it in turns to ride home and be groped on his motor bike pillion. It's the powers-that-be that take offence on their behalf.

Hector's nemesis arrives in the shape of Irwin, a supply teacher (Stephen Campbell Moore) whose task is to train the sixth formers for the exams. In terms of the newcomer's philosophy, truth is the first casualty of exam-passing.

It's a journalistic game - all a matter of "angles" and clever inversions of what is the case. Periodically, the play flashes forward to Irwin's post-teaching career as a disabled right-wing historian and to a later role in government as a professional twister of arguments.

The third historian in the classroom is Frances de la Tour's sardonic Mrs Lintott. When a lad opines that "history is one thing after the other", Lintott asserts that "History is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men. What is history? History is women following behind with the bucket."

Among the boys, there are splendid performances from Dominic Cooper as the focus of virtually everyone's desire (including that of the supply teacher) and from Samuel Barnett, who is a version of the sixth form Alan Bennett with added Jewishness.

Bennett once taught history at Oxford, having won precisely the kind of scholarship these lads are seeking. He has produced here a play of lightly-worn profundity that queries what it is we are trying to transmit when we teach the young literature and history. Is it better to know about literature or to know some literature by heart? Is it better to have a slick skill at concocting journalistic arguments or to subscribe to a slower-growing concept of truth?

The History Boys does not pretend that there are easy answers to these questions. It is vastly entertaining - and just the kind of thing that any self-respecting sixth form teacher would want to share with his or her pupils.

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