Review: The History Boys

RACHEL CUNLIFFE this is a play that ‘The History Boys is, without a doubt, a play that every Cambridge student should see at least once in their life.’

Alan Bennett Cambridge Arts Theatre The History Boys

The History Boys

Monday 8th – Saturday 13th, 7.45 with matinees at 2.30 on Thursday and Saturday at The Cambridge Arts Theatre. £10-30.


The History Boys is, without a doubt, a play that every Cambridge student should see at least once in their life. The production at the Cambridge Arts Theatre was my fourth time, which should give you some indication of just how much this play means to me, but I am reluctant for anyone to think my love of Alan Bennett’s writing is clouding my judgement. Let me be clear, this is not the best production of The History Boys I have ever seen. It is, however, a truly outstanding show, and the most enjoyable theatre experience I’ve had all term.

Why this play is so essential for the Cambridge student should be obvious – it’s about a group of boys trying to get into Oxbridge, learning flashy tricks and neat quotations guaranteed to impress any interviewer. Been there, done that, felt the horror of finding yourself in an interview talking bullshit about a topic you know nothing about, and it is so liberating to see that done onstage. Add to that the tragedy of an aging paedophilic English teacher, a headmaster obsessed with league tables, and a dash of boyish sexual tension, and you have one of the most exquisite plays in modern theatre. Bennett’s ability to paint the most realistic, poignant characters is astounding, as is his flair for witty one-liners which seem to sum up everything. ‘History is fucking. Discuss’ is a personal favourite of mine.

It’s a play that’s oh-so-easy to mess up. It needs a light touch, charm, and actors with a sense for perfect comic timing. This production has all of the above. Penelope Beaumont is particularly impressive as Mrs Lintott, the only female character, whose resigned amusement helps the play resist the tendency to drag. Her speech about the ineptitude of men, concluding with the line ‘History is women following behind – with the bucket’ was one of the funniest in the show. James Byng’s Posner was heart-warming, more frustrated and bittersweet than outright pathetic, and Ben Lambert’s performance of Irwin was spot-on, smugly superior with an undertone of utter terror. I would, however, have liked to have seen more enthusiasm from Kyle Redmond-Jones (Dakin) who seemed disappointingly complacent, especially during a scene which should have been fizzling with homosexual chemistry.

Maintaining energy levels is difficult in a play that is entirely set in a classroom, and I appreciated what director Christopher Luscombe was trying to do, with set changes accompanied by blaring pop music and pencil-sketched scenery. To be honest, slick though these were, they still seemed clumsy and unnecessary, detracting from the subtle hilarity of the script. This is a play carried by its dialogue alone, and when the cast were given the chance to embrace it, they really sparkled. What I loved is how the show juxtaposes serious questions about the essence of life, love and education with moments of sheer comedy, with a commentary on school league tables immediately followed by an improvised role-play scene in French about a visit to a brothel.

All in all, if you haven’t seen it before, go. And even if you have, this play is the perfect way to round off Lent term, secure in the knowledge that we’ve already made it to Cambridge.