CHRISTMAS OFFER Subscribe to Cotswold Life today CLICK HERE

The History Boys by Alan Bennett at Cheltenham Everyman

PUBLISHED: 17:29 01 April 2015 | UPDATED: 16:34 02 April 2015

The cast of The History Boys / Photo: Darren Bell

The cast of The History Boys / Photo: Darren Bell


A play about education? The only dry thing about The History Boys is Alan Bennett’s wit, says Katie Jarvis of this wonderful, wonderful, not-to-be-missed production running from March 30 to April 4.

The History BoysThe History Boys

There are those delicious stories (who cares if they’re apocryphal?) about the Oxbridge interviews, of course. The don who, insouciantly reading The Times, drawled to a candidate, “Entertain me”; the candidate, allegedly, set fire to his newspaper. Or – my own particular favourite – the entrance exam with the question, “What is a risk?” According to Oxbridge lore, one hopeful wrote, “This is”, walked out of the exam leaving the rest blank, and was awarded a scholarship.

Let’s call that the Hector School of Education.

Then there are the examples we can all draw on, such as the experience of my daughter, sitting GCSE religious studies at a school high up in the league tables. During a mock exam, she answered the question, “Why do people believe in God?” Her essay included her theory that people were comforted by the idea of a loving deity. By the side of this point, a teacher had chided, “This is not part of the model answer.”

Let’s call that the Irwin School of Education.

You probably don’t need me to tell you that Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys is sublime. You might need me to tell you that the Everyman production, by Sell A Door (possibly one of the most beautiful combinations of sounds in the English language) Theatre Company, does it utter, utter justice. Brilliantly directed by Kate Saxon, if this production were an Oxbridge candidate, it would be awarded an instant exhibition at Magdalen (and definitely know how to pronounce it). Like the boys themselves, I couldn’t take my eyes off Richard Hope as Hector who couldn’t keep his hands off the boys. (“I didn’t want to turn out boys who in later life had a deep love of literature, or who would talk in middle age of the lure of language and their love of words. Words said in that reverential way that is somehow Welsh.”)

So let’s backtrack a little. Bennett’s play follows eight students studying history at a Sheffield grammar in the 1980s, preparing hopefully for Oxbridge entry. They’re all bright – no question of that – but each of their teachers knows that almost every potential Oxbridge student offers the kind of A level results that set the heavenly host naively rejoicing. Dons are far harder to please.

These candidates need something extra. The question is, what? For the young supply-teacher, Irwin, the answer lies in contrary intellect and clever positing: the Holocaust can be viewed in the same context as the Dissolution of the Monasteries, he tells the boys, including Posner (“I’m a Jew... I’m small... I’m homosexual... and I live in Sheffield... I’m f***d”).

The charismatic Hector, however, considers A levels a “cheat’s visa” and general studies “useless knowledge”. Hector sees that education is about understanding, not learning; about improving life, not knowledge; about self-containment, not showing off; about a thirst for the world, past and present, that consumes for its own sake:

The History BoysThe History Boys

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.”

And he thinks all these things while cradling the boys’ nether regions as he takes them pillion on his motorbike.

The funny thing is, like the boys, it’s Hector we love. It’s Hector, with his paedophilic ways, who inspires us. Irwin we feel sorry for; even when we learn (if we study the origins of the play) that Bennett used Irwin’s techniques to gain places in both Cambridge and Oxford.

This was a production that flew by. The boys were excellent, but no more so than the wonderful all-singing, all-confused Posner (brought to life by Steven Roberts ex of Hollyoaks fame); and Scripps (Alex Hope), whose combination of religious fervour and down-to-earth sense provides many of the subtler laughs.

And there are many laughs, as well as pain. Mark Field’s Irwin is perfect; Christopher Ettridge as headmaster and Susan Twist as Mrs Lintott are also excellent. But Richard Hope? My word. It’s not the easiest of tasks to make us sympathise with this complex character, but there can’t have been many in the audience who wouldn’t have fleetingly considered riding pillion for a teacher like that. (Don’t think I’m belittling the significance of this; neither, of course, does Bennett. Our reactions, framed by a timewarp, are an element of the equation we’re asked to balance.)

It is, at times, a challenging play, not least the scenes in French (but, as they’re set in a brothel, the actions speak louder). The only annoying thing about that is always the section of audience determined to laugh in a way that forces you to acknowledge their erudition. (Honestly, guys; keep it for Shakespeare comedies.)

In theory, the questions this play asks could be as dry as dust. In practice, the only dry thing about Bennett is his consummate wit. And also in practice, these dry questions are ones we should be asking more and more, as our children jump through hoops of fire, sometimes to end up being consumed by the fire itself.

I once went to a talk by David Blunkett, responsible for a deal of modern education policy. During audience questions, I asked whether he worried – as did I – that we were teaching our children to pass exams, rather than to love learning. “No!” he replied, emphatically. At the end of his hour-and-a-half session, I thought to myself, what a lovely, lovely, well-behaved dog.

The cast of The History Boys / Photo: Darren BellThe cast of The History Boys / Photo: Darren Bell


• The Everyman Theatre is at Regent Street, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire GL50 1HQ, box office 01242 572573;


Welcome , please leave your message below.

Optional - JPG files only
Optional - MP3 files only
Optional - 3GP, AVI, MOV, MPG or WMV files

Please log in to leave a comment and share your views with other Cotswold Life visitors.

We enable people to post comments with the aim of encouraging open debate.

Only people who register and sign up to our terms and conditions can post comments. These terms and conditions explain our house rules and legal guidelines.

Comments are not edited by Cotswold Life staff prior to publication but may be automatically filtered.

If you have a complaint about a comment please contact us by clicking on the Report This Comment button next to the comment.

Not a member yet?

Register to create your own unique Cotswold Life account for free.

Signing up is free, quick and easy and offers you the chance to add comments, personalise the site with local information picked just for you, and more.

Sign up now

More from Out & about


Tracy Spiers takes an impressive, if hypothetical, budget on a shopping spree in Cheltenham’s independent stores

Read more

Get out and enjoy seasonal celebrations with a Cotswold twist

Read more
Tuesday, December 4, 2018

If you’re looking for things to do in the Cotswolds this month, we have gathered plenty of events for you to pop in your diary

Read more
Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Hundreds of participating National Lottery-funded visitor attractions across the UK are saying ‘thanks’ to people who have raised money for good causes by buying a lottery ticket, including a number of venues in the Cotswolds

Read more
Monday, December 3, 2018

“We’re looking forward to lots of festive fun this Christmas festival and hope to welcome lots of people to our town.”

Read more
Monday, November 26, 2018

“Faringdon upholds old-fashioned values through its traditional shops, personal service and shop owners who go the extra mile to make their customers feel at home.”

Read more
Friday, November 23, 2018

Home to some of the country’s most breathtaking architecture and picturesque gardens, the Cotswolds boasts plenty of beautiful stately homes you need to visit. We pick eight special locations that are made even more magical during Christmas time

Read more
Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Taking the classroom outdoors is fun, inspires fresh ideas, broadens horizons – and encourages a new generation to enjoy and care for the Cotswolds

Read more
Monday, November 19, 2018

Chipping Campden – once the meeting place for a council of Saxon kings – now offers the warmest of welcomes to all its visitors, from the humble shopper to the seasonal shin-kicker

Read more
Thursday, November 15, 2018

As well as three days of action-packed racing and tradition, there’s plenty to do away from the course at this year’s November Meeting. Neil Phillips, The Wine Tipster, shares his 14 suggestions on how to make the most of your time at Cheltenham Racecourse

Read more
Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The Warwickshire town of Alcester is considered one of the best understood Roman settlements in the country. Tracy Spiers digs below the surface to discover its hidden jewels

Read more

Thanks to the impact of ground-breaking comedy This Country, the quiet market town of Northleach has become one of the Cotswolds’ hottest film locations. Katie Jarvis is sent to investigate

Read more
Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Stephen Roberts walks in the footsteps of the Oxford scholar who enjoyed attending parties dressed as a polar bear, and once chased a neighbour while dressed as an axe-wielding Anglo-Saxon

Read more
Tuesday, November 6, 2018

I send this postcard from Cirencester, complete with the discoveries and viewpoints from four members of my family – both the young and not so young

Read more

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to the following newsletters:

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Our Privacy Policy

Topics of Interest

Food and Drink Directory A+ Education

Subscribe or buy a mag today

subscription ad

Local Business Directory

Property Search