From Pornography to Posh – they are at least in alphabetical order – and the next matinee performed by the Third Year Students studying Acting at the University of Northampton, treading the beloved boards of the old Royal Theatre in Northampton. Would it be two hard-hitting plays in a row?
Despite having written loads of plays that were completely overlooked by producers, Posh was the first play by Laura Wade that was performed in the West End – at the Duke of York’s in 2012. I’ve never seen any of Ms Wade’s work before but I knew of Posh by reputation; a dramatised version of life at Oxford University’s Bullingdon Club, where posh boys will be posh boys and pigs are scared. I attended that much respected university, gentle reader, although it was hundreds of years ago now, and although I may have occasionally got absolutely chateau’d (I confess I use that phrase myself), I never came within a burning £20 note of the Bullingdon Club. So this play is a splendid opportunity to wonder what it would have been like if one had been the right kind of student.
Actually, I was a member of the Page 71 Dining Society – probably long since defunct, sadly – but I think the worst we ever did was chuck a few sprouts about, and have one of our members swim naked in Lymington Harbour. Not like the Riot Club, as Laura Wade has named her secret society, where outward shows of gracious dignity quickly degenerate into pushing the boundaries of decency in all directions. The play asks some very searching questions about society as a whole – to what extent can money buy anything, from paying to compensate other people’s ruined evenings to other people’s ruined lives. And will the powers that be always have the ability to cover up those things that are best left unremembered? What happens at the Riot Club, stays at the Riot Club, comme on dit. Well, maybe. It’s a rich (in both senses of the word), meaty play with plenty to enjoy and some scenes that you watch with your hands covering your eyes as you gasp at the insensitivity of what some people have no qualms about asking. Personally, I didn’t really like the brief opening and closing scenes – the ending especially gives the story a definite outcome that I think it would be best to leave to the audience’s imagination. But that’s a separate issue.
Nevertheless, Laura Wade’s play gives the acting students plenty of opportunities to make the most of their characters; the belligerently fascist Alistair, the lightweight drinker Toby, the seriously over-indulged George, the sexually go-getting Harry, the wannabe diplomatic Leighton. Most of them took to it like the proverbial ducks to water, with Lee Hancock in pole position, completely relishing the true awfulness of Alistair’s character, constantly provoking the others, undermining others’ authority, patronising and belittling what he sees as lesser people than himself. Mr Hancock gives an award-winnng, energetic performance, giving full rein to his ample vocal powers and splendidly disdainful expressions. Steven Croydon fills out the role of Toby with superb displays of petulance, intolerance and impatience – also of resignation as he knows he’s going to face the consequences of his previous misdemeanours. He has a very strong stage presence – the kind of actor you watch for a few seconds even when they’re not talking because you know they will be still 100% connected with what’s going on. He performs a wonderful drunk act as his character gets totally smashed during the Dregs game; there’s a beautifully played (and timed) scene where Messrs Hancock and Croydon are leading two different conversations, Mr Hancock strident with his dogma, Mr Croydon wheedling in his inebriation, the one piping up in the conversational gaps left by the other; very funny and very recognisable.
Connor McCreedy gives a very clean-cut and authoritative performance as President of the Society, Leighton; interpreting the role with great clarity, you can see that Leighton sees himself as the enabler and guide – wanting the other diners to have the best experience but also wanting the best for the Society, which means damping down enthusiasm if he thinks it will keep them out of the papers. I also very much enjoyed Ben Barton as Hugo, another naturally authoritative figure, treading a fine line between the decadent and the decent; and Olly Manning made the best of the comic opportunities given by the character of George, relishing everyone else’s puddings with enormous refinedness. Tom Garland’s Ed was an intelligent portrayal of the new boy desperate to fit in and constantly making lame comments; I think we’ve all been there.
There are also three characters totally unconnected with the society, each given fine, strong performances. Chris Drew’s pub landlord Chris is the epitome of the hard-working little man, the kind of person some of these posh boys utterly despise; this “entrepreneur’s society” dinner that he thinks he is hosting is a little different from what he’s used to but he’s still stretching his sinews to make sure they have a good time – until things get cataclysmically out of hand. His daughter and waitress Rachel, played by Jennifer Wyndham, gets subjected to a range of attention throughout the course of the evening, and Ms Wyndham absolutely nails that position of having to balance the customer is always right with I’m not doing that. And Lauren Scott gives a delightful cameo as the high class escort engaged to “entertain” the guests, and who quickly makes us realise that there definitely are services that money cannot buy. As a small criticism, there were a couple of roles where I thought the actors could make even more of their presence and increase the expression and confidence in their voices. There were also a few occasions when many of the actors continued with their next line despite the audience still howling with laughter, so we didn’t catch a word they said – that’s a skill that needs to be mastered! However, that did not stop it from being a very entertaining production of an enjoyable play – congratulations to everyone on creating a true menace of a dinner party.