Alan Bennett’s THE HISTORY BOYS voted the UK’s favourite play

It’s no real surprise that want I wanted to be when I ‘grow up’ was a writer. I could often be found with a pen in my hand or my nose in a book during my childhood, and as someone who has always delighted in words, I am fortunate enough now to be able to live a life that includes my passion. I remember that English was always the subject I most enjoyed and got the best marks in throughout my education years. I was always eager to become engaged in the in-class discussions and found joy in piecing together the many essays we were assigned by our teacher, who led us through a wonderful assortment of novels to study in depth. There were the obligatory Shakespeare classics of course, including Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, alongside other great literary works such as Of Mice and Men, Frankenstein and The History Boys. The latter of these was a particular favourite of mine. The text is rich with the various themes playwright Alan Bennett wove through the plot, like sexuality, female roles, the question of education itself, and not forgetting the theme which appears in its very title; history. Truth and accuracy continually crop up within the exploration of this subject, and anyone can see the correlation between the careers the boys go on to have and the events which occur in the play. The History Boys is one of Bennett’s best works, which is why I was pleased to see that it has been named as the UK’s favourite play.

English Touring Theatre opened a poll to theatre fans in September, asking them to vote for their favourite English language play in an attempt to discover what the theatre-going public most want to see. The names of over 1,400 plays were submitted during the vote, which as ETT director Rachel Tackley said, ‘is astonishing and speaks volumes about the health of British theatre and the variety on offer to audiences.’ It was The History Boys which was eventually victorious though, managing even to overcome the works of William Shakespeare to emerge top of the poll.

The History Boys made its debut at the National Theatre in May 2004 and was a sell-out success, with the original run continually being extended to meet demand. It transferred to Broadway and also embarked on 2 UK tours before opening in the West End at the Wyndham’s Theatre in 2007. The proud owner of an Olivier and Tony Award for Best Play, the play is a certified global hit, with numerous international productions having been staged over the years. A film adaption was released in 2006 and attracted similar acclaim (it is also a useful visual aid for students studying the play, as it was for me). Director of the original production, Nicholas Hytner, also directed the film version, which also starred the original stage cast. Clive Merrison (Headmaster), Richard Griffiths (Hector), Stephen Campbell Moore (Irwin) and Frances de la Tour (Mrs Lintott) returned as the four featured teachers in the play, as did those who played the roles of the boys: Sacha Dhawan (Akthar), Samuel Anderson (Crowther), Dominic Cooper (Dakin), Andrew Knott (Lockwood), Samuel Barnett (Posner), Russell Tovey (Rudge), Jamie Parker (Scripps) and James Corden (Timms). The History Boys particularly made names of Cooper, Tovey and Corden, who have all gone on to lead incredibly successful careers in the acting world.

As one of the National Theatre’s biggest success stories, The History Boys naturally featured as part of its 50th anniversary celebrations last month, and in light of its recent win as the nation’s favourite play, the nation may just see it featured again in English Touring Theatre’s 21st anniversary program in 2014. As many as possible of the Top Ten plays in the poll will be presented in next year’s touring schedule, with the announcement set to be made soon. Having taken the No. 1 spot, it’s probably a safe bet that The History Boys will be included. The other winning plays, (in ranking order) Noises Off, Hamlet, Arcadia, The Importance of Being Earnest, Jerusalem, An Inspector Calls, Twelfth Night, Macbeth and King Lear, are all possible contenders too.

Founded by Stephen Unwin in 1993, English Touring Theatre is based in Waterloo, London and stages a mix of both new and classic work to produce ‘thrilling, popular, and, above all, entertaining’ theatre. Now under the leadership of director Rachel Tackley, it is widely known today as England’s Nation Theatre of Touring. Sir Ian McKellan stands as Patron for ETT, a company which has received numerous awards for its work and continues to thrive with every production staged.

Speaking about the poll results, Tackley said, “’I want to thank the thousands of people who voted in this fantastic birthday present for English Touring Theatre… It’s wonderful that two such glorious playwrights as Alan Bennett and Michael Frayn sit alongside Shakespeare at the top of the list. I’m very much looking forward to announcing how, where and when English Touring Theatre will be presenting the most Popular Productions across the country.”

It is an immeasurable achievement for The History Boys to have overcome the wealth of existing plays and be named as the favourite of the British theatre fans. In competition against the likes of a worldwide renowned playwright like William Shakespeare, most writers couldn’t hope to be chosen over him, but that is just what happened to Alan Bennett. As well as The History Boys, he has already given the theatre world such gems as The Madness of King George and Talking Heads, and the 79-year old Bennett can easily be considered as one of the greatest playwrights of the last century. He will be remembered in history…as will his boys.

By Julie Robinson (@missjulie25)

Thursday 12th December 2013

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