The History Boys

Mar 19 2015 | By More

✭✭✭✩✩    Unconvincing

King’s Theatre: Tues 17 – Sat 21 Mar 2015

Always involving but lacking real vitality, Sell A Door’s touring production of The History Boys is well crafted. However, audiences new to the play might struggle to understand why it was voted the UK’s favourite as recently as 2013.

Alan Bennett’s play features a group of post-A level pupils preparing for Oxford and Cambridge entrance exams at a Sheffield boys’ grammar school in the 1980s. Their teachers represent differing views on education: the eccentric Hector delights in knowledge for its own sake, while the ambitious Irwin believes in twisting the truth to gain an advantage.

Cast of the History Boys. Photo Matt Martin Photography

Cast of The History Boys. Photo Matt Martin Photography

The two teachers also struggle with their attraction to the boys in their charge. It is difficult to imagine the subject being treated as lightly in 2015 as it is here – in the decade since the play’s first performance Hector’s casual sexual harassment of his pupils has come to seem even more unacceptable. Despite Richard Hope’s accomplished performance, he lacks the necessary charisma to make the character seem anything other than a selfish self-dramatist.

This lack of charisma is mirrored in much of the rest of the ensemble. The pupils are not always sufficiently differentiated. This is not through want of trying; former Hollyoaks regular Steven Roberts is particularly impressive as the troubled Posner.

However, there is a lack of believability among some of the other boys. Kedar Williams-Stirling does not have the necessary mean streak or swagger to convince as the sexually confident, amoral Dakin. Alex Hope’s narrator figure Scripps aside, many of the other pupils are too self-consciously theatrical and lack individuality. The original production boasted an exceptional cast of young actors, many of whom have gone on to fame and fortune, and without such a cast the overly witty and learned teenagers can become tiring.

somewhat opaque

While the overall standard of performance is high, there is a lack of the sparkle that would make it truly compelling. Susan Twist, as the more traditional history teacher Mrs Lintott, never overcomes the problems inherent in a character whose occasional espousing of a feminist viewpoint simply reinforces that she is little more than a cipher.

The History Boys cast. Photo: Matt Martin Photography

The History Boys cast. Photo: Matt Martin Photography

Mark Field’s Irwin is more diffident and lacking in confidence than the part might suggest. While this is always interesting, it makes the characters’ motivations somewhat opaque and less compelling. Christopher Ettridge revels in the cynical, self-deluding Headmaster, whose pursuit of league table success and mangling of language is the most accurate reflection of the Thatcherite revolution in this staging.

Some unsubtle lighting changes aside, this is always a thoughtful production. However, there seems to be a failure of nerve that stops it reaching the heights. There can never be any danger of the play being taken as an accurate reflection of the educational process. Instead, its popularity stems from a heightened realism and a nostalgic attitude to schools leavened with large amounts of humour.

Seemingly afraid of the attitudes on display – the snobbery, the sexism, the blind eye turned towards abuse – director Kate Saxon reins back on this humour, instead trying to find a political impact that the work struggles to bear. Thus any impact is correspondingly lessened. While this is a satisfying production, it adds little to the play’s reputation.

Running time 2 hours 35 mins including one interval
King’s Theatre, 2 Leven Street EH3 9LQ
Run ends Saturday 21 March 2015
Evenings 7.30 pm, Matinees Wednesday and Saturday at 2.30 pm
Tickets from

The History Boys on tour 2015:
17 – 21 March Edinburgh
Kings Theatre
0131 529 6000 Book online
23 – 28 March Ipswich
The New Wolsey Theatre
01473 295900 Book online
31 March – 4 April Cheltenham
Everyman Theatre
01242 572573 Book online
14 – 18 April Blackpool
The Grand
01253 290 190 Book online
22 – 25 April Portsmouth
Kings Theatre
023 9282 8282 Book online
27 April – 2 May Bromley
Churchill theatre
08448 717 620 Book online
5 – 9 May Crewe
Lyceum Theatre
01270 368 242 Book online
13 – 16 May Derry
Millenium Forum
028 7126 4455 Book online
19 – 23 May Buxton
Opera House
0845 127 2190 Book online
26 – 30 May Exeter
Northcott Theatre
01392 493493 Book online
1 – 6 June Swindon
Wyvern Theatre
01793 524 481 Book online
8 – 13 June York
Grand Opera House
08448 472 322 Book online
16 – 20 June Darlington
Civic Theatre
01325 486555 Book online
29 June – 4 July Worcestershire
Malvern Theatre
01684 892277 Book online
7 – 11 July Cambridge
Cambridge Arts Theatre
01223 503333 Book online


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