Mon 10th – Tue 11th November 2014


Simon Fearn

at 00:16 on 11th Nov 2014



After 'The Riot Club' recently caused a political storm, it seems fitting that Laura Wade’s original play should have such a successful revival, with tickets selling out within ten minutes. Having rushed to dinner with some rather unsavoury company, those lucky enough to squeeze into the intimate setting of Empty Shop were treated to an evening of impeccable acting, uproariously inappropriate humour and serious political commentary.

Hatfield’s Lion Theatre Company have staged a version of 'Posh' quite unlike most modern theatre. The audience are inches away from the action, and during the climatic act of brutality the front row were in danger of suffering the same fate as the unfortunate landlord! Whilst the lack of sloping seating often obliged those at the back to peer around heads to catch some of the minutia of the action, this was a small sacrifice for such an incredible venue. Much more than in traditional theatre we were part of the action, sitting with the Riot Club in a Gastro Pub in Oxfordshire, perhaps even implicated in their detestable behaviour.

This element of immediacy and realism was also largely down to the flawless acting of the large ensemble cast, who pulled off the extraordinary feat of giving ten largely interchangeable rich boys distinct personalities. Each had their moments of glory: Jack Gault's hilarious smugness throughout as Harry Villiers; Robert Double's expertly mangled lines as he succumbs to a drunken stupor as Toby Maitland; and Adam Simpson’s beautifully awkward encounter with Charlie the escort as George Balflour. Meanwhile Dominic McGovern and Jonathon Packham were both cringingly naïve in their efforts to impress as the Riot Club’s newest members. Aside from the Riot Club itself, Eliza Cummings-Cove is wonderfully believable as the waitress victimised by the boys, whilst Joe Fleming’s performance as Jeremy perfects the play’s chilling conclusion.

The two figures that dominate however are Peter Hucker as James Leighton-Masters, the disillusioned president of the Riot Club who steadily loses control throughout the evening, and Oliver Burrows as Alistair Ryle, certainly the most villainous of the Oxford boys but also the most charming. The play’s politics hinge on the conflict between these two characters: James, who hopes that the world will forgive him of his privilege if he keeps quiet and throws money at his problems, and Alistair, who makes outspoken political speeches vowing to win back society from the unworthy middle classes. Both attitudes are contemptible. Wade’s play offers no solutions on how the sons of aristocrats are to integrate successfully into society; their mocking of James for writing a job application form demonstrates that they have no intention of trying.

Aside from individual performances, perhaps the key aspect is the dynamic of the cast as a whole. The rapport between the students is instantly recognisable as a boarding school dynamic of shame and bawdy humour, one that the boys should really have outgrown. The effect of the incomprehensible amounts of wine consumed is palpable as the play progresses, and the ratcheting up of tension is so subtle that one is hardly aware of the moment when friendly banter seamlessly becomes something much more sinister. For this, and the delicately articulated disorder of the play, credit is due to director Lily James. We are never simply watching unpleasant adolescents have dinner; they are more often than not standing on their chairs playing an incomprehensible drinking game or knocking out a surprisingly good a capella version of ‘Wearing my Rolex’. James can also lay claim to a gloriously innovative use of party poppers, which now will forever be seen as an innuendo by many audience members.

It is the mingling of the unique venue, the incredible dynamic of the cast and the orchestrated riotousness that make Posh a refreshingly different theatrical experience, one in my opinion far superior to the film version. It is the mark of a truly intelligent production when the audience doesn't know whether to laugh uproariously or shudder with disgust, particularly as the boys taunt their victims. Although some of the audience members appeared to find the humour a little too uncomfortable and the ironic political outbursts a little too offensive, a play cannot be brave without offending someone. Whether 'Posh' achieves its political goals remains to be seen, but it certainly succeeds in its blend of ceaseless entertainment and food for thought.


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