You could argue that Alan Bennett's The History Boys does for the 1980s what Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie does for another "low, dishonest decade", the 1930s. It homes in on disturbing tendencies in the period through the relationship between a maverick teacher and his/her pupils. But where Spark's heroine approves of the political shifts, and has classroom methods to match, Hector, the gay teacher who gives general-studies lessons to the history class of Oxbridge candidates in Bennett's Yorkshire boys' grammar school, is in flamboyant opposition to the creeping new orthodoxies.
He rightly believes that a Thatcher-influenced education system that values only what is examinable needs its own head examining. "I count examinations, even for Oxford and Cambridge, as the enemy of education. Which is not to say that I don't regard education as the enemy of education, too," he tells Irwin, the young graduate hired to teach the boys the presentational tricks that will impress (or even fool) Oxbridge dons.
Richard Griffiths, whose performance as Hector bagged all the major awards in London, and, earlier this year, won the Tony on Broadway, is indelibly identified with the role (which he reprised in the underrated film of the play). It's not just because of this actor's Falstaffian girth that his successors in the part risk looking a bit shrunken. Regardless of Hector's sexual peccadilloes, Griffiths also brought great moral weight to the part, showing you the hard-won wisdom underlying his witty, unconventional teaching techniques.
One measure of the play's huge success (a much-extended run at the National, triumph in New York, and a regional English tour) is that it is only now, some two-and-a-half years after the premiere of Nick Hytner's excellent production, that The History Boys has embarked on a recast West End transfer. Here, Hector is played by Stephen Moore, who cuts a trim, rather effete figure. He gives a sensitive and cumulatively very affecting performance, but he's not forceful or angry enough in his one-man awkward-squad routine, and you don't feel the strength of his emotional need to be remembered as a "character" by the boys. He's best at the quiet moments - spell-binding in the superb sequence in which Hector expounds on a Hardy poem to the troubled, gay Posner, revealing the depth of his own loneliness and stoicism, and transmitting subtle empathy to a pupil who looks likely to share such a fate.
High-voiced, sad-faced and poignantly pert, Steven Webb is both amusing and moving as Posner. Both the play and the film indicate the future lives that lie in wait for the boys, but the film, which has Posner, the boy most affected by Hector, becoming a teacher somewhat in his mould, and declaring, "I'm not happy but I'm not unhappy about it", is more convincing than the stage version, which has him suffering a nervous breakdown. As Dakin, the sexy object of his affections, Ben Barnes is handsome and engaging but rather bland and one-note in his cockiness.
Missing is the sense of saturnine insinuation and danger with which Dominic Cooper (who originated the role) toyed with the affections of his fellow-pupil and of Irwin (a nicely peaky and repressed Orlando Wells). In the film, the representative political significance of Irwin is largely removed. In the play, we see him develop from a teacher who puts "spin" before truth, to a New Labour spin doctor, via a stint as a TV historian. By tracing this "progress", Bennett's wonderfully astute, funny and painful play insinuates the dismaying continuities between the ethos of the Thatcher era and the world according to Blair.
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