Sunday, October 29, 2006

It's history, boys, but not as we know it

I don't normally do reviews but last night we went to the theatre to see The History Boys and it was so good I just have to tell you about it.

Usually I'm pretty lukewarm on Alan Bennet. He's amusing all right, but he can get a little too mawkish and sentimental for me. The History Boys, though, is in a different league altogether.

We drove into Aberdeen which meant I had to stay sober since it was my turn to drive. It's actually the first time I've ever watched a play in the theatre stone cold sober and I must say it was an entertaining experience. I'm always nervous in crowds and that added to the sense of drama last night. Heightened sensibility and all that. With the added bonus that I didn't fall asleep and annoy everybody with my snoring during Act Two.

The play is beautifully written and constructed. Witty, intelligent, poignant and moving. Everything that a Saturday night in front of the box isn't. This is a playwright at the peak of his powers. A master of stagecraft showing off his repertoire of tricks. But he isn't showing off. The audience - sophisticated and almost as knowing as the author - plays the part Bennett has written for it as well. And when he does catch us off guard - well, we're delighted. Mutual admiration from one professional to another.

The acting and directing, by the National Theatre company is exemplary, not to say inspired. Full of brio, life-affirming and heart-breaking all at the same time. Not a dud note in the entire cast.

The writing pushes the boundaries too. Or it would have done if there were any boundaries left to push. There's a scene near the end where one of the star students asks his young male teacher - who he knows is in love with him - to give him a blow job. It's a sign of how much times have changed that in Aberdeen - Aberdeen, that most provincial and small-minded of Scottish towns - a scene that once would have provoked a sharp intake of breath now had most of the audience silently willing the teacher to accede to the request. Go on, take a chance, live dangerously. Do it for us.

Well, most of the audience anyway. There was a family of four in front of us. A fierce-looking father, a doting, subjugated wife and two faintly-embarrassed teenage sons. The father led his family to their seats and allocated their places when they arrived. At the interval he shepherded his flock to the aisle where I heard him explaining the finer nuances of the plot to his captive audience. During the blowjob scene I saw him exchanging horrified glances with his wife. He looked trapped. It was too late to lead his flock away from this calumny. I guess I was watching a play within the play, which only added to the pleasure.

In summary, one of the most enjoyable, most uplifting nights I've ever spent in the theatre. Alan Bennett I love you. Folks, if you get the chance - don't miss it.


  1. Anonymous11:54 am

    Green with envy Pundy. Have been a longtime fan of Bennett, mostly for all the reasons that you stated distaste for!

  2. I saw this production too, as it recently resurfaced in London just before this tour. I thoroughly enjoyed it, as I too love Alan Bennett. However, I did feel that the second half didn't quite live up to the first, but show me a play where that isn't (unarguably) true.
    I like your "family blow job" anecdote. In our little quartet (mother, father and two girls) the roles would be reversed. malcolm or I would be the ones being shephereded into certain seats, and if we attempted to comment on anything, particularly anything with any remotely "adult" content in it, we'd be firmly shut up.
    We occasionally watch a DVD with the girls and a scene comes up where someone kisses someone (or worse). Jenny immediately clamps her hands over Malcolm's eyes until it is safe.

    PS did you read Lynne Scanlon's excellent post about seeing this play in New York?
    PPS I've heard that the film, just released in London, is not as good as the stage version.

  3. I've got tickets to see this production at The Lowry, on Salford Quays, in a couple of weeks time.
    I think it's the last date in the tour, before they transfer to the west end just before Christmas.
    I'll try to stay sober. If it worked for you it might work for me, too.

  4. John, I hope you enjoy the play as much as I did. I'll read your blog afterwards to see if you review the play.

    I'm not sure about the staying sober bit though. It was an experiment I'm unlikely to repeat.