IT was a bad week to be a toff in the theatre with Oh What A Lovely War satirising the Col Blimps and high society buffoons at Bath Theatre Royal and Laura Wade’s coruscating black comedy about an exclusive all-male Oxbridge dining club in Posh at Salisbury Playhouse.
Of course, both plays draw their characters with a broad brush, largely using stereotypes to hammer their points home. But like all the best humour there is also lot of truth, which is where the First World War musical play derives its emotional power and the contemporary comedy packs its savage punch.
Posh started its life at the Royal Court, went into the West End where it was a big hit and was then filmed as The Riot Club, with a starry young cast including Sam Claflin, Max Irons, Douglas Booth, Holliday Grainger. Now it is on its first national tour in a joint production by Nottingham Playhouse and Salisbury Playhouse, at Salisbury until Saturday 4th April.
The “inspiration” for Posh is generally said to be the Bullingdon Club, the exclusive Oxford University dining club whose famous former members include David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson. Founded more than 200 years ago, “the Bulller” has made headlines over the years (smashing all the windows in one of the great Oxford colleges and most notoriously brawling and trashing an ancient pub), but the playwright was looking more at the idea of the sense of entitlement that comes from untold wealth and old names
There are jokes (often very funny) about the schools other people come from or the (non-Oxbridge) universities to which they go. When the feisty landlord’s daughter tells the young bloods that she went to Newcastle, the most blue-blooded of the Riot Club members, George Balfour, asks if it is “near LMH” (Lady Margaret Hall, one of Oxford’s formerly all-women colleges).
The inevitable question, watching these blustering bullies, whose collected brains would hardly be the size of a golfball let alone a rugby ball, is: How on earth did they get through the (supposedly) rigorous Oxford selection process? And, equally inevitably, the answer seems to be: Because they went to the “right” schools, and their fathers went to the same school and to the same college and so it goes …
Posh is shocking. But not because it shows a bunch of young men doing what all young men do, given half a chance and enough to drink – making utter asses of themselves, making a lot of stupid sexist jokes, trying it on with the available young women and emitting enough testosterone to blow the windows out. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about that. It happens most Saturday nights after any football or rugby match. What makes it shocking is the assumption – reinforced by the reptilian peer, “Uncle Jeremy,” (Laurence Kennedy), a senior Tory party figure – that some of these spoiled and unlikable young men are the leaders of the future.
Ex-members of the Bullingdon Club have written critically about both Posh and the film version, suggesting there are no parallels and condemning it for weak plotting and implausible characterisations. Well, as the late Mandy Rice-Davies would say, they would say that, wouldn’t they?
There are excellent and convincing performances, led by Jordan Metcalfe as the pompous and petulant Alistair Ryle, Tom Hanson as Hugo Fraser-Tyrwhitt, Tom Clegg as the mercurial Toby Maitland and Jamie Satterthwaite as George Balfour, with Charlotte Brimble as Rachel, the landlord’s daughter, and Neil Caple as Chris, the landlord. Joanne Evans, in her professional acting debut, is the girl from the escort agency.
Joanne Evans is also the elegantly gowned singer (she has a beautiful voice), introducing each scene with excerpts from a requiem mass composed for this production by Isobel Waller-Bridge. You must draw your own conclusions on the effectiveness of the music and the chosen pieces – Agnus Die, Requiem Aeternam, Pie Jesu, In Paradisum. For me, they were a cumulative commentary on the self-importance the club members place on the dinner, its rituals, its toasts, its punishments and its absolute conviction that money buys anything – sex, repairs to a ruined room, silence …
Director Susannah Tresilian has created a convincing and threatening atmosphere of privilege and power. You spend much of the first half laughing out loud but the mood turns darker in the second half and the tension cranks up effectively.
It was good to see so many younger people in the audience and congratulations to both theatres on a timely and provocative staging of a very clever and disturbing play.