Alan Bennett’s wise, witty play about schoolboys, education and sex was first staged at the National in 2004, to enormous acclaim. This acclaim has persisted, and recently it was voted, slightly ridiculously, ‘the nation’s favourite play’, beating the likes of Hamlet and The Importance Of Being Earnest to the accolade. I can’t imagine that Bennett – a supremely modest man – would derive any particular satisfaction from this piece of hyperbole, but I have every confidence that he would be thrilled by the latest touring revival, directed by Kate Saxon.
A problem that the play has is that the first production, directed by Nicholas Hytner and starring the incomparable Richard Griffiths as the eccentric, loveable but troubled teacher Hector, is so iconic that any subsequent staging exists in its shadow. Saxon’s solution is not to imitate the earlier production but to innovate. She’s helped by an excellent central performance from stage and screen veteran Richard Hope as Hector. Lacking Griffiths’s sheer bulk of physical presence, Hope instead shrewdly conveys both the inspirational Hector’s charm and creepier aspects; it is a bold move by Bennett to make his protagonist a pederast, albeit of a very English, slightly pathetic kind. Hope is backed up by an excellent supporting cast that includes Susan Twist as the wry, seen-it-all history teacher Mrs Lintott, Mark Field as the counterfactual supply teacher Irwin and Christopher Ettridge as the headmaster. It’s the latter role that treads closest to caricature, and Ettridge’s big performance doesn’t have the subtlety and nuance that Clive Merrison brought to the role; nonetheless, it’s a lot of fun.
However, the play isn’t called The History Men but The History Boys and the casting of its young ensemble is crucial. Many of the original NT cast – James Corden, Dominic Cooper and Jamie Parker – have gone on to great things, and several of the young actors here seem bound for similarly strong careers, not least Alex Hope as the amusingly doleful Christian, Scripps, and Kedar Williams-Stirling as the provocative Dakin, who ends up getting the repressed Irwin very hot under the collar. If I wasn’t as convinced by Steven Roberts as Posner – in some respects the heart of the play – then that is more because it’s hard to forget the poignancy and nervous charm that Samuel Barnett brought to its first staging.
But comparisons, as they say, are odious. The greatest compliment I can pay this new, (near) decade-on production is that, within a few moments, one forgets the original cast and enjoys the play for what it is, a touching, funny and insightful look at life and what makes us tick. Perhaps the accolade that it’s received isn’t so far off the mark, after all.
Touring until 11th July. For more information and tickets, visit the website.