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Yes Sir - return of the The History Boys

PUBLISHED: 09:51 24 May 2010 | UPDATED: 16:45 01 July 2010

Emma Lee

Alan Bennett's multi award-winning play The History Boys returns to Norwich Theatre Royal. EMMA LEE goes back to the classroom to meet the latest actors to play Hector, Posner and Rudge.

Alan Bennett's multi award-winning play The History Boys returns to Norwich Theatre Royal. EMMA LEE goes back to the classroom to meet the latest actors to play Hector, Posner and Rudge.

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Going back to the classroom for their roles in the History Boys, was easier than Peter McGovern and James Byng thought it would be. “We slipped back into that schoolboy mentality seriously easily,” laughs Peter, who plays Rudge. “You regress very quickly,” adds James, who plays Posner.

Event has been invited to Cambridge Arts Theatre to meet the cast of the touring revival of the play, which is at Norwich Theatre Royal from Monday.

The up-and-coming actors are joined by Gerard Murphy, who takes on the role of Hector, one of the teachers tasked with preparing a group of bright pupils for their Oxbridge entrance exams in 1980s Sheffield.

Penned by Alan Bennett, the History Boys became an instant classic when it made its National Theatre debut in 2004, and was later adapted for the big screen.

This new version is co-produced by the West Yorkshire Playhouse and the Theatre Royal Bath and is directed by actor-turned-director Christopher Luscombe.

Bennett's work is in very safe hands with Luscombe - he's also directed productions of Enjoy and the Lady in the Van.

Despite their youth, Peter and James are already seasoned stage performers.

Peter trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and his CV includes touring productions of Kes and Enjoy.

And James' background is in musical theatre (he gets to show off his amazing voice in the History Boys), and has appeared in Oliver! and Les Miserables in the West End.

And their futures look bright - a role in the play is a proven springboard to great things: Matt Smith, Dominic Cooper and James Corden are all former History Boys.

Gerard is an associate artist of the Royal Shakespeare Company and has played some of theatre's meatiest roles. And he's also a regular on TV, having appeared in an eclectic assortment of shows including Spooks, Waking the Dead, Vanity Fair and Father Ted.

All three of the actors jumped at the chance to join the new production - and are clearly passionate about it.

It's an ensemble piece, and everyone shines. And they're clearly a close-knit gang.

“This group of boys is as good as it gets. These are the best, I can assure you. They inspire me on a nightly basis,” says Gerard. “We get on so well. And the audiences are clearly enjoying it, which is so rewarding,” he says.

“I believe Alan Bennett is the greatest living writer in the English language. The History Boys is written with such finesse that any audience can watch it.”

The writing is Bennett at his absolute best - laugh out loud funny, bittersweet, thought-provoking and moving. Central to the plot are three teachers, with very different learning methods. Idiosyncratic Hector is complemented by the traditional Mrs Lintott (played by Penelope Beaumont) and bright young thing Irwin (Ben Lambert).

“I'm not sure teachers like Irwin and Hector exist any more. To a certain extent they function as vessels for exploring two different teaching styles,” James says.

Famously, the actor Richard Griffiths created the role of Hector. How did Gerard feel stepping in to his shoes?

“It's daunting. This is only the second production of it. Some of us have seen the first production of it, some of us haven't. I haven't. But it's written so carefully that the guidelines are laid down. It sounds restricting, but it's liberating. However, if you just 'said it', the director would be appalled,” he laughs.

“I'm enormously admiring of Richard Griffiths. He's a fantastic actor. All I know is that I can't possibly be doing it the way Richard did it.

“I've been lucky enough to do a lot of iconic roles in Shakespeare, so I'm accustomed to stepping in to big shoes. It is always daunting and it's humbling and it's levelling.”

“It's a pleasure to be doing something that's so brilliantly written,” says Peter. “My character is the sporty one of the group. He's definitely the least intelligent. Nobody expects him to get in.”

“And my character is small, gay and he's Jewish and a bit of an outsider. He's a thrill to play, because I'm not many of those things apart from being small. It's nice to play someone, who on the face of it, is different to yourself,” says James.

The History Boys is a class act - don't miss it.

t The History Boys runs at Norwich Theatre Royal from May 24-29, £22-£5, 01603 630000, www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk

HISTORY BOYS ALUMNI

If you needed another reason to go and see the History Boys at Norwich Theatre Royal, then it could be your chance to see some stars of the future. Just look at what the cast of the last tour to call in the city went on to do…

Former University of East Anglia student Matt Smith, who played Lockwood, has taken over the Tardis from David Tennant in Doctor Who, which Marc Elliott, who played Akthar, is now starring as Syed Masood in EastEnders.

Jamie King, who played Dakin went on to star opposite Jonathan Rhys Meyers in the Tudors as the poet Thomas Wyatt and Guy McKendrick in the hit TV show Mad Men.

And Thomas Morrison, who played Scripps, was Hooper in Julian Jarrold's film adaptation of Brideshead Revisited.

They're not the only actors who have enjoyed the success since starring in the History Boys. Other notable graduates include Dominic Cooper (who played Dakin), who starred in Mamma Mia! and An Eduction, Russell Tovey (Rudge) who's appeared in Being Human, Rob Brydon's Annually Retentive and Doctor Who, Gavin and Stacey star James Corden (Timms) and Ben Barnes (who also played Dakin) starred as Prince (and now King) Caspian in three Narnia movies.

VIEW FROM THE CHALK FACE

A group of budding Oxbridge pupils are faced with diverse views on education. These contrasting methods of learning are personified in two teachers in Alan Bennett's award-winning play.

English teacher Mr Hector argues that exams are the enemy of education and words and ideas are the only worthwhile knowledge. He improves the boys' French by getting them to impersonate the clients of a brothel, only to be interrupted by an astonished headmaster.

He is obsessed with league tables and results, wants them all to go to Oxbridge. To this end he engages young historian Irwin, who argues the key to success lies in coaching the boys to tell the university selectors what they want to hear.

It is clear Bennett's sympathies lie with Hector's hymn to the joys of education, yet it is Irwin's methods that eventually get the results.

While these themes of the value and meaning of education are subtly probed, the setting - supposedly a grammar school in Sheffield in the 1980s, has never run true for me.

As someone who attended a Sheffield grammar during the Thatcher hey-days, I have simply never seen much in Bennett's depiction that I recognised from my time in the classroom.

From the way the pupils speak, their attitudes to teaching to the bizarrely dated references - my fellow pupils were talking about Back To The Future and Duran Duran, not show tunes and Brief Encounter - it all too often smacks of a late middle aged writer out of touch.

That is particularly true with Hector's habit of groping the boys as they ride pillion on his motorbike. Let's just say the reaction of the characters when his secret is exposed is a far cry from the reality I knew.

School can shapes our lives. And idea of school as the formative period of your life is one of many notions threading through The History Boys. It has important things to say about out attitudes to schooling and what's it for. Just don't confuse it with classroom reality.

t Simon Parkin

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