Good Boys, Bad Education

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(286)

Review of 'The History Boys' by Alan Bennett, National Theatre

Alan Bennett does not like New Labour, and is a very witty and observant writer. The play is set in a boys' grammar school in the north of England in the 1980s, where they are grooming their best half dozen or so pupils for Oxford and Cambridge.

At one level it is a witty critique of the education system and the current reforms that see the only purpose of education in passing exams and getting a good job afterwards. Against this is contrasted the now extinct idea of education being to develop a person's full potential. It is an attack on the current education system and how it came to be the way it is.

It is also about what history and truth is, and attacks the postmodernist idea that history is just a narrative along with many others, all valid. Indeed, the idea there is no such thing as truth, just a particular viewpoint of it, led to the revisionist trend in history of the 1980s and early 1990s. Glib TV shows re-work history to amuse, not to educate. These ideas are attacked not by preaching, but by a series of bitter, funny and ironic one-liners.

Then again, it is a pretty clear attack on New Labour. It also deals with gay sex among schoolboys, and between teachers and schoolboys. Plus there is singing and even a little dancing of sorts, and the use of videos and film within the play.

This is marvellous entertainment. With this play Bennett has moved away from his whimsical and bit too cosy style that he often has. Here he has a target he loathes - the government - and it has turned him into a reincarnated Oscar Wilde with a mission. Though he was part of the first wave of satire, he was always the least directly political one, making mild fun of aspects of British life and the establishment in general. It says a lot that he has been so stunned by the depth of the rightward march of New Labour.

The cast in this play is excellent, with Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths effortlessly good and the less well known actors playing the boys convincingly. Parts of the plot are a bit unbelievable - I'm sure gayness amongst teenage boys in the 1980's would be seen as more of problem than it is here, and some of the boys' characters seem a bit too glib, but it is great, great fun.