Big space suits Bennett's big play

Katherine Ryan

REVIEW: Katherine Ryan at the Portsmouth Guildhall

When Christopher Luscombe saw the original 2004 production of The History Boys at the National Theatre, he recognised instantly that it would suit Chichester Festival Theatre.

'The auditorium suits epic works,' he explains, 'and I was keen to see a modern play dealing with important issues bouncing around on that stage.'

Chris first directed Alan Bennett's play a year ago but is reviving it now for a new national tour with some changes in casting.

And at 47 he is particularly happy to be preparing it for the auditorium he frequented as a boy during family holidays at Middleton-on-Sea.

The play deals with a clash of teaching philosophies, between those who set the greatest store by exam league tables and those who believe in educating for life.

Chris says of the writer: 'One of the things I like is that he deals in grey areas rather than black and white.

'Audiences' sympathies go more towards Hector, who believes education is for life, but when I spoke to Alan Bennett he seemed very even-handed about it, sympathetic to both camps.

'He thought if you had children at school you wanted them to be taught by Mr Irwin, the teacher brought in to coach the boys for their exams.'

Does Chris agree with the view that Bennett is a compassionate writer? 'Yes. He is unflinching in his observation of people but does not judge them.

'At the same time you have to recognise the sharp, acidic points. He can shock.'

Hector was famously played at the National by Richard Griffiths, but the script makes no size demands and Chris has cast the far-from-bulky Philip Franks, a CFT associate director, in the role.

Chris says: 'I'm thrilled to have him because one of his great qualities is his intellect. He utterly convinces you of the man's intellectual life.

'The character is inspiring and charismatic but often reprehensible, and Philip is well-equipped to portray the different shades.'

The schoolboys are played by professionals just out of drama school 'because they carry the show in many ways.

'Put them in uniform and cut their hair and they look quite convincing to me!'

The History Boys is at Chichester Festival Theatre until January 29. Tickets: (01243) 781312 or cft.org.uk.