The eight original History Boys, including Russell Tovey and James Corden, have gone on to achieve starry success...
Alan Bennett remarked that he’d “never had so much fun as rehearsing that play”. He was talking not about The Habit of Art, his new smash about Benjamin Britten and W. H. Auden at the National Theatre, but about his previous one, The History Boys, which opened there in May 2004.
If The Habit of Art reaps its rewards, it was The History Boys that sowed the seeds of a new, golden age of British theatre, the aura of which has clung to Nicholas Hytner’s National ever since. It followed, you recall, a cabal of unlikely lads from Cutlers’ grammar school in Sheffield, attempting to secure places at Oxbridge. Their gloriously filthy, inspired, erratic pedagogue Hector, rendered unforgettably by Richard Griffiths, was usurped over the course of the play by the dazzlingly clever but ultimately substanceless young graduate teacher, Irwin. In a haunting coda, Frances de la Tour’s redoubtable history teacher revealed what would become of the boys in later life.
But what happened to the young actors playing them? And what, five years on, has stayed with them of that sensational play?
One of the play’s most memorable summations was delivered by Russell Tovey’s Rudge: “History sir? It’s just one f***ing thing after another.” Athletically inclined and, in that highly charged, sexually ambiguous classroom, the most straight of the boys, Rudge was the least interested in learning. Tovey was his opposite. “What I remember is that most of us had gone to normal school,” the 28-year-old actor recalls, “and didn’t know half of what the boys were supposed to. All the literature, the plays and poets and so on. We hadn’t experienced any of it. So in the beginning, we just sat around and read poems for ages with Alan Bennett and Nicholas Hytner. Auden, Wilfred Owen, Shakespeare, the lot. I mean that was amazing. That was kind of my education. Alan was there every single day, we called him AB; you could ask anything. The only thing you couldn’t do was suck up. You had to take the piss or he wasn’t having it.”
According to the play’s epilogue, Rudge went on to build ugly, affordable homes all over the Dales. Tovey, however, took the lead in the Barbican’s Tintin, starred in new plays at the Young Vic and the Royal Court, appeared in Doctor Who and Rob Brydon’s Annually Retentive, and is now in the second series of Being Human, the BBC’s drama about flatsharing with the undead.
Tovey thinks the secret of The History Boys’ appeal was that “we got to know each other so well, it looked like we really had been at school together. And we were kind of like the Spice Girls. Whatever your taste, one of us fitted it.”
Within the slippery, surreal world of the play, most people’s taste was trained on Dominic Cooper’s cocksure Dakin. Dakin grew up to be a tax lawyer, combining his love of money and lying. Cooper himself has since embarked on a hugely successful film career. He played the young lead in the film of Mama Mia!, can be seen in the elegiac An Education and performed in Racine’s Phèdre at the National, with Helen Mirren.
“The read-through for The History Boys was about five hours long,” Cooper says, “and, as I remember it, extraordinarily boring. And although the rehearsals were great for us, it wasn’t until we got the audience in that we realised it was that funny. The more we performed it, the more I understood. And lines from that play ring through my head, even now.”
The play’s most tender, haunting creation was Posner: “I’m a Jew. I’m small. I’m a homosexual. And I live in Sheffield. I’m f***ed,” he said. Samuel Barnett was the most garlanded of the boys for his portrayal of the troubled Posner. He went on to secure a slew of roles, from George Orwell to Millais in the BBC’s Desperate Romantics, and is currently reprising the outlandishly camp character of Doonan in the second series of Beautiful People .
“There was this strange mirroring of art and life going on,” he recalls “It was a kind of drama school for me. I learnt about acting watching Francis de la Tour and Richard Griffiths every night. About everything, really. We always thought Dom would have a big film career but we didn’t know about James Corden. He said he had this great idea and we were like, good, well, let’s see what comes of that.”
What came of it was Gavin & Stacey. Written with Ruth Jones, the series made Corden a household name, won him a British Comedy Award in 2007, a Bafta the next year and is now in its third series, regularly pulling in five million viewers. Corden played the gregarious japester Timms in The History Boys, forever being thwacked about the head for scurrilous transgressions. Corden can often be found flying Timms’s flag in real life. His sketch show with Mathew Horne was roundly panned, as was the spoof film thriller featuring the pair, Lesbian Vampire Killers, this year.
In January, Corden moved in with Dominic Cooper. “We both broke up with our girlfriends and were miserable,” he says. “All the boys are in touch, though. We all went to the Habit of Art press night and going back into the National together was something else. We had this surge of love, watching Richard Griffiths.
“It’s ridiculous,” he continues, “whenever we meet up it’s like, Sacha [Dhawan, who played Akthar] just did another play at the Royal Court, Sammo [Samuel Anderson, Crowther] is in Emmerdale, Andy [Knott, Lockwood] is about to play John Lennon [in Backbeat, at Glasgow Citizens Theatre in February]; and Jamie Parker [Scripps] is like ‘Oh, I just did this Tom Cruise film’,” Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie, set in Nazi Germany.
“For me,” Corden says, “the most amazing thing was, here are eight lads, similar age, similar point in their careers. And we did 496 performances of that play, shot a film, did a radio play, and in all that time there wasn’t any competitiveness. I don’t even remember a proper argument. Unbelievable. By the time we opened on Broadway I thought, nope, it just doesn’t get any better than this.”
Nor does it get as prolific. Not since Another Country in the early 1980s has there been a star-making play to match it. However well it does, one piece of history The Habit of Art can’t repeat is the successful launch of so many young actors at the same time into such fully fledged careers.
“The problem is,” Cooper concludes, “that we’re constantly striving to find work of that quality. It weighs on you, when something that amazing happens to you so young. It was unique, which was what was great about it. But it is difficult. I think we all feel that, in our different ways.”