A brand new production of Alan Bennett’s classic classroom comedy-drama, The History Boys, visits the Wolverhampton Grand Theatre early next month.

It’s the 1980s, and an unruly bunch of bright and funny sixth-form boys are in pursuit of sex, sporting achievement and a place at university…

Widely acknowledged to be one of the UK’s finest modern-day playwrights, Alan Bennett is perhaps best known for the frank yet compassionate way in which he unveils his characters’ many layers, exposing both their shortcomings and triumphs for his audience to see. His plays are jam-packed with sharp wit, devastating moments of raw emotion and incomparable humanity.

The History Boys is no exception.

“It’s all about considering what the point of education is,” says Ian Redford, who stars in the new production. “What are schools for? Is school about passing examinations or is it about actually learning stuff? And then is that learning focused on how to be a human being, or finding out about how the world around you works - or both? Education is always on people’s minds and everyone has an opinion about it. I think the further away an individual gets from having been in education, the more strident their opinions become. I was reading an article years ago about parents running around in Starbucks bragging about their children’s material possessions and arbitrary achievements. But it’s not about that. It’s about whether kids are growing up into happy human beings, not just being raised to achieve certain things, like fulfilling a school’s desired number of pupils going to Oxford and Cambridge, which is certainly part of the story in The History Boys. Education is the nub of the way society works and can become a topic in which people explore what it means to be human, but almost by accident.”

So what was Ian’s own education like?

“I had a particularly extraordinary teacher at school. I wasn’t academic and was pretty lazy too. I really wasn’t interested in school, but I was in plays, theatre and acting. This wonderful teacher - who was a History teacher, funnily enough - taught me how to live through my passions. Reading a book or seeing a play is like going on a magic-carpet ride where you go into this whole different world.

“We also have this desperate focus on achievement; who’s got a better car, a nicer phone, whatever. The History Boys is about that, and it’s also about being human and the power of language.”

The play also delves into the subject of male relationships...

“A few of the characters, both the boys and the teachers, are homosexual or are pretty open when it comes to what they’re willing to try. Putting aside sex, what Alan Bennett discusses is male love of all kinds - a sense of caring for another male. There are all these pressures about what a man should be, how to be an alpha male and what masculinity means. Women obviously have their own pressures, but in the 1980s, men weren’t supposed to hug, touch and be caring towards one another in the same way as women were. It’s also about adolescence and how to navigate that. It’s about the value of teachers as guides - and not just academically either; not just to get you through the exam and be done with you.”

Ian plays the character of old-school history teacher Hector.

“Hector is married and described as a latent homosexual. He’s a teacher who’s been around a long time and is getting to the latter stage of his career. He survives through humour, definitely knows the limits of his influence - as most teachers do - but has a burning passion which has kept him going throughout his years in teaching. The beauty of language is particularly important for Hector. He has a beautiful relationship with all of the boys, in the sense that he’s a sort of parental figure, but also knows when to give them a cuffing. Hector is forced to share a class with Irwin - a younger teacher who’s come in to shake things up. Irwin’s idea is not to teach the subject as it is, but to embellish and subvert it in a way that makes it more appealing to the students. It’s almost as if he’s flogging stuff! So Hector and Irwin’s relationship is certainly a little confrontational.”

How does Ian think The History Boys compares to Bennett’s other plays?

“In a way I think this play is his most political, although he doesn’t really come up with a specific leaning towards one side or the other. He just throws up into the air all the questions for the audience to consider for themselves. As he’s got older, Bennett has become more political, particularly when it comes to the arts. I suppose everything is political in the end, but The History Boys is certainly more overtly so.

“And it’s so funny too. The humour and wit in it is so funny; “History is just one f***ing thing after another”! It’s truly brilliant. I can’t think of any other playwright who does the combination of politics, comedy and human relationships so well. I’d say he does it in a very understated English way. There’s a gentleness and a sardonic humour around his work. He’s the most extraordinary writer.”

Lee Comley, taking on the role of Hector’s rival, Irwin, and Victoria Carling, playing the only female teacher, Mrs Lintott, also have plenty of praise for Bennett and The History Boys.

“This is a play that everyone can relate to,” says Lee. “That feeling of moving from being a late teen into an adult is a strange time for all of us. I think everyone will leave at the end of the show having had a great time, but also holding onto those really important parts of the play. What I like the most, though, is that the boys are very open to their sexuality being fluid. To have that viewpoint in the ’80s is quite unusual. I think what’s so striking about Bennett is how he just lays everything out there, just as it is.”

Victoria is equally complimentary about The History Boys: “After I’d read the script, I tried to describe to my husband what sort of humour Bennett injected into his plays, but it’s really hard to do that. It’s almost like it’s so subtle that you don’t quite know why you’ve laughed, but you do anyway. The comedy in his plays is so clever, but certainly not in an inaccessible way. Bennett is nothing to be afraid of!

“The History Boys never struck me as a play I ever wanted to see, but now having read it, my thinking has been completely altered. It’s moving, funny and thought-provoking. I would compare it to a heartfelt chamber piece. It’s not a great, showy symphony - all fire and bangs - but it’s something you will keep thinking about afterwards.”

The History Boys shows at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre from Friday 7 to Saturday 22 February.

By Lauren Cole