When The History Boys was first performed at the National Theatre in 2004 the reverential cupping of a sixth former's genitals by an appreciative retirement-age teacher was enough to elicit ceaseless gales of laughter. Today it is more likely to form the basis of an investigation by detectives from the public protection division.
Such are the shifting sands of history. It is an irony that would not be lost on Irwin, the young teacher brought in by a results-obsessed headmaster to knock the redbrick fodder of a northern grammar school into shape for the rarefied discourse of the Oxbridge entrance examination.
Yet Alan Bennett so fully and subtly describes the interplay between this bright Thatcher-era cohort and their all-too-human teachers, that it remains both funny and wise – even if our laughter is now tinged with a little self-consciousness.
The play is a much-garlanded masterpiece in which the English intellectual and social value system comes under a merciless comic eye. The question therefore is how to stage it. Director Michael Longhurst and set designer Chloe Lambert (who recently worked together on the excellent Cannibals at the Royal Exchange in Manchester) chose to open up the vast backstage of the Crucible to create an echoing chasm.
The fading lines of a badminton court on the polished hardwood parquet immediately evoked the dreary, empty routines of grammar school life. But the scale of the space also pitched the actors at times into a battle against their surroundings – their voices drifting off into the piles of chairs and desks stacked behind them.
The incidental music had a rock guitar edge that combined with the boys’ rolled-up blazers and their energetic dance moves resembled a video by the boy band Busted. Some might prefer a more Tweedy approach.
But these were only minor niggles. Matthew Kelly, who was filling a role made famous by the late Richard Griffiths as the Auden-loving Hector, was terrific and combined effectively with Julia St John as the glacial Mrs Lintott. But the most intriguing character remains Irwin played by Edwin Thomas here in his professional stage debut.
Bennett clearly has little time TV historians, especially those who substitute “journalism” for proper thought. Thomas convincingly captured the complex opportunism of the careerist crammer, offering us up a true spirit of his age.
Crucible, Sheffield to 8 June