Though set in a Northern grammar school and with much to say about education, Alan Bennett's The History Boys (at Greenwich Theatre until 24 June) is really about thwarted desire - a leitmotif that has run through so much of Bennett's work. Everyone really, reallly wants something and everyone can't quite reach it - until the end, when the reckonings are made and winners and losers emerge. Bennett being Bennett, there are plenty of laughs and more than a touch of erudition floating in the air, as hope and despair vie for supremacy.
In the Upper Sixth Remove, eight boys - all clever, all funny, all desperate to make Oxbridge - are being taught by Hector, the kind of eccentric teacher who was dying out in the 80s as league tables, performance management and prescriptive curricula swamped and demoralised them. To his Headmaster's chagrin, and his pupil's pleasure, Hector teaches whatever takes his fancy and the boys absorb it, but cannot frame it in the way that will catch the eye of an Oxbridge admissions tutor. Enter Irwin, a supply teacher on a three months contract with the brief to get the boys into their chosen colleges. When Hector's desires lead him to be spotted touching up a boy and Irwin confronts what really drives him to be so forceful in the classroom and meek outside it, choices must be made.
Sell a Door's production can feel a little static at times, as bells ring and boys troop in and out of the classroom, but the script is always sparkling with poetry, epigrams and acerbic wit. Richard Ryecroft's Hector is charismatic and funny, but played with exactly the right level of arrogance an ultimately selfish character needs. David Hutchinson's Irwin fights off his cynicism just long enough to get through to the boys, and hides his true nature from all but the two most perceptive of them. Marcus Taylor's turn as The Headmaster is hilarious from start to finish. Amongst the boys, Joe Morrow and Lawrence Murphy stand out as the cynical Scripps and gay Posner.
The History Boys will be familiar to many from previous stage productions or from the successful film and even those seeing it for the first time - like me - will "know it" through its sheer Alan Bennettness. It's is still a joy though - a rare example of popular theatre that, like Hector, refuses to talk down to its audience.