A correction was made to this review on May 31, 2004.
Sometimes, you simply can’t dampen an evening’s high spirits. That was the case at the National Theater opening of “The History Boys,” which was delayed for over an hour because of a fire in the electrical rigging of the Lyttelton auditorium that, in turn, triggered the sprinkler system, all but flooding the stage. One can only imagine the response of the play’s ever-rueful author, Alan Bennett, recently turned 70, whose Job-like awareness of life’s trials is at the same time tempered by the very empathy coursing through this play. While some in the audience bolted, most did stay the course, emerging after 11 p.m. no doubt feeling they had witnessed their own bit of history: Not in a long time has so inauspicious a start given way to something quite so irresistible.
That’s not to make undue claims for “The History Boys” as a text. The play is often as puzzlingly conservative (very definitely with a small c, in the case of the left-leaning Bennett) and as rambling as, say, his extraordinary “Habeas Corpus” remains both daring and bold. But the National, returning to Bennett for the first time since Nicholas Hytner directed “The Madness of George III” in 1991, is sure to have a huge popular hit with this subsequent Hytner-helmed venture. The West End and, very possibly, the movies look likely to beckon, alongside whatever portion of a Broadway audience warms to lines like, “I was a geographer. I went to Hull.”
“The History Boys” could be Bennett’s 1968 play “40 Years On” nearly 40 years on, except that the current one seems to inhabit a time warp, however likable (and crowd-pleasing), that makes it feel as if it actually predates the earlier play. Set at a state school in the north of England in the early 1980s among a group of gifted adolescent boys who are being groomed for scholarships to Oxford and Cambridge, “The History Boys” posits a classroom rife with barely suppressed carnal energy, where the students fall into reenactments of choice moments from “Brief Encounter” and “Now Voyager” — when they’re not crooning “Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered” and casually quoting Wittgenstein and Auden, if you please.
Whatever happened to sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll? Only the first of those three figures — and does it ever — in Bennett’s piecemeal plot, which rolls on one after another appealing scene like so many quick sketches across Bob Crowley’s sliding, angled set, rather as if the play were already auditioning, with the help of extensive video footage, to be a film of itself. (And why not, since Hytner made a delicious screen directing debut with the movie of “King George” in 1994.)
Bennett was himself a scholarship student at Oxford in the 1950s (a program photograph of the playwright from that time makes it look as if Bennett went to college when he was 10 years old), and his own training as a historian has no doubt fed the antithetical pedagogical methods presented in the play. In one corner is Hector (Richard Griffiths, late of the Bennett-scripted pic “A Private Function”), the moist-faced, sexually impure senior teacher whose contrastingly elevated notions of education are challenged by the arrival at the school of the young “supply” teacher, Irwin (played by Stephen Campbell Moore, whose breakthrough film, “Bright Young Things,” could just as well be this play’s title). Far better for these boys to be tutored in bold argument than in the virtues of speaking the truth, argues Irwin, who advocates history as performance or as entertainment — anything, really, that makes a pragmatic exercise of the education that the idealistic Hector holds to be sacrosanct.
Widening the debate still further is the play’s lone woman, Mrs. Lintott (Frances de la Tour, at her faux-Coward finest), who argues the distaff cause. She despises the prevailing view of history that, as she puts it, tends to exalt inept men while leaving women “following behind, with a bucket.”
Their keen charges, of course, put their own spin on things, starting with the working-class Rudge (the delightful Russell Tovey), for whom history is “just one fucking thing after another.” But however deftly these teenagers can argue about God and the Holocaust, they are inevitably led by the libido, from the quietly emerging Jewish gay, Posner (a beautiful perf from Samuel Barnett), to the hyper-charismatic Dakin (Dominic Cooper, blazing with the confidence of a young Jude Law), who maintains merely that “history is fucking.” The dark-eyed Dakin has the sexual goods on all the faculty, and Cooper makes a decidedly sinuous serpent, proffering the apple of temptation to one and all. Will these boys succeed as men? Bennett tells us one-by-one in a filmic coda that, in one wrenching instance, would seem to anticipate one of this writer’s more disturbing “Talking Heads” still to come.
“The History Boys” is stronger on mood and ambience than actual plot, and some eventual melodramatics are one area where Bennett seems to lose control. Elsewhere, one could question the self-consciousness of having Mrs. Lintott suddenly turn to the audience to announce that “she has not hitherto been allotted an inner voice” — as if Bennett couldn’t figure out how to fold her into his own narrative. But for the most part, the unruly nature of the play is part of the appeal of a tremendously vivid production that won’t be tamed any more than the passions of that rare on-stage ensemble — every single one of the eight boys is remarkable — whom you feel by the end you have come to love.