Laura Wade’s Posh offers a rare opportunity: the chance to spend a night with an exclusive Oxford Dining society, without the risk of a serious hangover. It is, as each member of the fictitious Riot Club snorts at one point, ‘bloody good fun’! But the play’s framework suggests Wade is trying to write something more serious; in the final scene, the club’s most unruly member is protected, indeed promoted, by Riot Alumni deep within the Tory party. Is this meant to frighten? Within the context of the booze and banter, it feels like this topicality has been tacked onto Posh; a play which, despite all the riches on display, ends up feeling ever so slightly cheap.
There is undoubtedly some sharp, neatly observed writing here. Laura Wade has done her research and the ten members of the Riot Club are efficiently defined, even if they do all come from the same end of the spectrum (marked ‘Posh’). Wade has captured the rhythm of these privileged boys’ speech well; it runs at a furious pace, is peppered with mild swear words and is invariably barked out at top volume. They all sound convincingly posh.
Yet, when one listens more closely, they also start to sound the same. Where are the dissenting voices in this group of boys, clinging onto aristocratic ways that are fading fast? Where are the doubts, the insecurities, the light and shade? The humour in the dialogue – Wade’s strong suit – does not come from subtly undercutting these privileged chaps but from sending them up. It is often very funny but, as the cliches amass, the laughter starts to stick in the throat.
Repeatedly, the best lines depend on conforming to rather than questioning stereotypes; ‘I’m not talking about proper poor people – like Africans…’ Almost all the cracking one-liners depend on taking the most extreme elements of these characters and stretching them to snapping point. Is it really worth it and is it saying anything new? Would one be able to take the same approach when depicting a different, less privileged section of society, on stage?
These extreme characters not only seem like an unbalanced representation of society we must assume is as varied as all the other ‘niche’ societies we see presented in the theatre; it also leads to a lack of conflict which, in turn, leads to a lack of drama. There are exceptions that point to what could have been. Early on in proceedings, the Riot members stand, poised to start their age-old dining ritual, when the landlord bursts in and, unaware, punctures their protocol. It is an excellent glimpse of the tensions rumbling beneath the civility; like watching two opposing tectonic plates rub up against each other and explode on impact.
But there aren’t enough jolts like this and, for the most time, the boys continue unhindered and unchallenged. This means that, when the gang turns violently on the landlord deep into the second half, the moment doesn’t feel dramatically earned. Instead, one suspects this beating has been inserted to up the dramatic ante and provoke a climax that, otherwise, might have remained dormant.
There are scenes that dig deeper and ask interesting questions; moments that transcend easy laughter and thicken the characters and play. Following their ten-bird roast, Hugo (the exceptionally expressive David Dawson), the delicate and artistically inclined member of the group, suggests reintroducing some Riot Club traditions. Specifically – poetry. The rendition that follows is robust and spiky and provokes both admiration and discomfort from the group. But the life and energy that breathes through the stage, as Dawson rewrites Shakespeare as the Riot boys would have seen it, hints at an intellectual energy that might’ve once flickered throughout the candle-lit dinners of the past. Dare I say it – could there be some positive qualities that these purveyors of hedonism might once have nurtured?
At the other extreme, the tyrannical outpourings from the poverty-hating Alistair (Leo Bill) – ‘I am sick to fuckin’ death of poor people!’ – hit hard. Wade is brave to push her character this far. Bill launches into his tirades with gleaming, proud hatred and the ugly emotions fester on-stage long after the rant subsides. It is frightening stuff – and yet, despite its vitriol, the speech fails to shock the other characters on stage. That such an outburst can create so few ripples hints at the narrow scope of this enjoyable but somewhat one-sided play.
Till 22 May 2010