Review Rating: ****
"I count exams as the enemy of education. Which is to say that I count education as the enemy of education as well."
This is the mantra of Mr Hector, rotund, eccentric and mildly perverted teacher at a northern grammar school in the 1980s. He is the charismatic anti-hero of The History Boys, a new play by Alan Bennett, premiered at the National Theatre in London this week.
His approach baffles many of his colleagues. The head sees him as unquantifiable, because he fails to produce results, and is almost pleased when Mr Hector is later caught molesting a boy: that, at least, can be counted.
Into this world enters Mr Irwin, a bright young history teacher entrusted with guiding the sixth form towards Oxbridge entrance. Other teachers have taught the boys to regurgitate facts to fit a mould; Mr Irwin teaches them to regurgitate facts to break the mould.
Shocked to discover the enormous field of reference his pupils have acquired in Mr Hector's class, he suggests that they incorporate this knowledge into their examination papers. "But Mr Hector's stuff isn't meant for the exam," they protest. "It's meant to make us more rounded human beings."
This conflict of teaching styles comes to a head in a shared lesson between the two teachers, in which the boys are discussing the Holocaust. "Good point!" Mr Irwin applauds one boy. "No," Mr Hector replies in disgust.
"Can't you see he's speaking from the heart?"
The History Boys bristles with sparkling Bennett one-liners and scenes of genuine comedy: Mr Hector tells his class that they can act out a French role-play scene in a brothel, provided that "all the clients use the subjunctive or the conditional".
And the acting, from such veterans as Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths, is uniformly excellent. But it is Samuel Barnett, as Posner, an undersized gay boy with a talent for 1930s music-hall hits, who delivers the most memorable performance.
The true star of the play, though, is education. There are genuine questions about its nature, and the nature of independent thought. Like the best stars, it is remorselessly enigmatic, a different thing to each person.
'The History Boys' runs until September at the Lyttelton Theatre on the South Bank.To book, tel: 020 7452 3000