History Boys, The (3 stars)

The History Boys

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, until Sat 21 Oct


There might be a couple of points of added interest to this reappearance of Alan Bennett’s 2004 classic on Scottish stages. The first of these has to be the recent release of the motion picture version of the play, directed here, as at the English National, by Nicholas Hytner. The difference between the theatre version and the film illustrate much of what can go wrong with big money being thrown at successful theatre pieces, for in the process, there is a certain blanding, if not dumbing down, of the ideological edges that made the play so powerful.

For Bennett’s play is about nothing less than history itself, in a society largely in denial about the importance of the subject. The play, for those unfamiliar with it, tells the story of several high school graduates of the early 1980s who are sitting their Oxbridge entrance exams. They are taught by an older teacher in love with the joys of learning for its own sake, but mildly inclined to groping the boys on the odd occasion, and a coldly pragmatic, repressed young gay, who sees history as a game to be played rather than something of value in itself.

Underneath all this is an examination of the period of its setting, as the coldly utilitarian greed of the Thatcher era began to overwhelm the more egalitarian influences of a welfare state put in place by Atlee. By also shifting some of the action to the present day in the form mainly of epilogue and prologue, the profound political changes of the period, which also effect personal decisions made by the characters, is given an emphasis in the theatre version lacking in the film.

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