Posh

Tue 18th – Sat 22nd October 2016

reviews

Rory Craig

at 09:58 on 19th Oct 2016

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My first experience of Cambridge theatre certainly did not disappoint. Superbly directed by Anna Jennings, Laura Wade’s Posh is a dark comedy about an unruly Riot Club meeting of ten privately educated male Oxford students (modelled closely on the notorious Bullingdon Club) in an Oxfordshire gastropub. With an outstanding cast and ideal setting in the Corpus Playroom, this production is unmissable – hysterically funny and darkly disturbing, but also deeply thought-provoking and relevant at this University and in wider society.

The setting of the Corpus playroom is absolutely perfect for Posh. The sheer proximity of the audience to the ground-level stage creates a terrifying sense of intimacy, up close and personal, as if we are present throughout the dinner and thus somehow complicit in its rapidly escalating degeneracy, classism, alcoholism, misogyny and, ultimately, violence. Many will have seen the 2014 film adaptation, which is excessively glamorous compared to this brutal and raw show. By the end it is genuinely troubling to comprehend what is unfolding just inches from your face, yet impossible to turn your head away.

Initially the Club meeting is characterised by relatively harmless excitement among members at its return after two terms in disgrace and a simple desire to get completely “chateaued.” The audience laughs along at the quaintly anachronistic and ridiculous behaviour and speech of the boys. We are introduced to each of the ten Club members individually, and it is to the credit of the cast that they are all able to assert their own character’s persona effectively throughout the play, with different flaws and (some) qualities.

The actors work brilliantly as an ensemble, constantly hugging, toasting, laughing, cheering and joking around the table, interrupting and speaking over each other with consistent and convincing energy, constantly keeping the audience amused and aghast. As the booze continues to flow this initially celebratory mood switches to tension and disagreement with alarming speed as we discover the more nuanced aspects of the boys’ respective personalities – some hold much more extreme social views than others and they possess varying moral compasses. This transition from innocuous comedy to elitist horror is seamless and happens so quickly you don’t realise until it’s too late.

George Booth-Clibborn as George Balfour is the least malign of the Club members and is perhaps the one genuinely likeable, bumbling aristo who gets caught up in the violence. Jonah Surkes’ Toby (in the doghouse after a prior incident) is extremely funny and hilariously mean to Joe Pieri’s overly eager initiate. Leo Benedict is especially memorable as a thespian gay member (Hugo) with a penchant for preposterous drunken monologues and Max Campbell gives a larger than life performance as Dimitri, particularly vulgar in his desire to flash the cash. Ben Martineau is measured as the President who has started to loathe his own Club (before he too succumbs to the depravity) and Louis Norris is perfectly pitched as a slightly sinister former Club member and now Tory MP, whose two intriguing scenes frame the action and reveal the true (but perhaps sensationalised) power of the old boys’ network.

Seth Kruger’s Alistair Ryle is relatively quiet in the first half of the play, as he seethes with resentment at the landlord’s temerity to assert control over his own pub. However, he reveals his true colours in the latter stages as he unleashes a series of vitriolic diatribes regarding the state of British society and his hatred for both the working classes and the way in which the elites have allowed the masses too much power. Kruger’s portrayal is superb – genuinely terrifying, totally convincing and utterly repellent, managing to shock the other boys at the table as well as the audience.

Keir Baker generates enormous sympathy as Chris the pub landlord, and we admire his honest, hard-working moral courage in dealing with bribes and looking after his daughter and pub, in stark contrast to the amoral cowardice of the boys.

Although this is a play about a boys’ drinking society, the contribution of the two female cast members is key and provides a further, crucial dimension on misogyny and sexism. Beth Hindhaugh severely embarrasses the Club as a high-class escort who rips them to shreds with sharp comebacks, and Isobel Laidler plays the landlord’s daughter Rachel, deeply disturbed by the vile arrogance and sexism of the Club shown towards her, but extremely brave in her responses before she bears the brunt of the most appalling moment of the entire show.

There is an element of class war in Wade’s dialogue which does occasionally seem almost gratuitous in the extent of its offensiveness – would anyone ever really say “I’m sick to fucking death of poor people?” Perhaps, but really this just makes the piece even more enjoyable and frightening. Small directorial touches like the use of mobile phones and ring tones help to draw the dialogue into a darkly familiar scenario.

Though originally performed during the 2010 General Election campaign as an embarrassing exposé aimed at David Cameron and the Tory “old boys’ club”, this show is no less relevant six years later as the same issues of Oxbridge/public school elitism and domination of public life remain pertinent. At one point one of the boys is “pennied” at the table and thus forced to down his drink – a brief and seemingly harmless snapshot that will resonate deeply with a Cambridge audience and suddenly bring the action even more uncomfortably close to home.

It is no wonder that Posh sold out a week before its first night. This is a play really worth seeing, both for its enormous entertainment value and its tackling of pressing themes that could not be more relevant for many students at a University which is becoming more accessible but remains fundamentally elitist in many ways. If you can get your hands on a last-minute ticket, you must go and see this.

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