The History Boys, National Theatre, London

National Theatre, London

A small fire in the Lyttelton lighting rig delayed the first night of Alan Bennett's new play by an hour. But, exasperating as the hold-up was, nothing could diminish the incendiary achievement of this subtle, deep-wrought and immensely funny play about the value and meaning of education.

Bennett's setting is a northern grammar school in the Thatcherite eighties and his focus on the varied methods of training post A-level students for life.

The headmaster, obsessed with league-tables and results, wants them all to be Oxbridge candidates. To this end, he engages a young historian, Irwin, who knows that the key to exam success lies in singularity and that "the wrong end of the stick is the right one".

In the opposite camp is the gentle English master, Mr Hector, who argues that exams are the enemy of education and who Audenishly believes that words alone are certain good.

Clearly Bennett is writing in praise of Hector and the non-utilitarian, anti-Gradgrind approach to education. At the same time, he is fair enough to show that in history, above all, you need a certain grounding in facts before you can begin to achieve interpretation.

Bennett also complicates the issue by making Hector an amiable pederast who likes to grope the boys as they ride pillion on his motor-bike and by making Irwin a closeted homosexual terrified of acting on his impulses.

What is astonishing is how much territory Bennett manages to cover: the teaching and meaning of history, inflexible and imaginative approaches to education, and the idea, as in Forty Years On, that a school has the potential to be a metaphor for English life.

It is no accident that the play is set in the eighties, when the arguments between beleaguered humanism and pragmatic functionalism were at the very height.

The play is also blissfully funny, not least in a scene where Hector improves the boys' French by getting them to impersonate the clients of a bordello, only to be interrupted by a surprised and astonished headmaster.

But behind the almost ceaseless laughter lies a hymn to the joys of language, intellectual exploration and inspirational educators.

Nicholas Hytner's production also contains a clutch of fine performances. Richard Griffiths is overwhelmingly moving as the unfashionable Hector, whose love of the boys embraces their bodies as well as their minds.

Stephen Campbell Moore makes Irwin both meretricious in his methods, yet effective in his results.

And there is priceless support from Frances de la Tour as an isolated woman history teacher in a male-dominated club, as well as from Clive Merrison in the role of the rattily authoritarian headmaster.

In short, a superb, life-enhancing play.

· In rep. Box office: 020-7452 3000.


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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