My trip to the Royal Court Theatre to see Laura Wade's new play about a dining club of badly behaved Oxford toffs was beautifully timed; I was able to come home from the matinee and then watch David Cameron for 90 minutes in the party leaders' debate. Fiction and reality. Bliss.
Given that Cameron and George Osborne have done their utmost to erase from public memory the famous photograph of them in Bullingdon Club tailcoats and waistcoats, I doubt if they will want to go anywhere near the Royal Court. Being a toff isn't quite as taboo as in the days when I was at Oxford in the late 1960s, but an undergraduate history of inflicting criminal damage in country pubs probably isn't much of a career-enhancer. Wade's play, however, suggests the opposite -- that a shared record of claret-fuelled misbehaviour is a key to entering at least part of the Tory elite.
Though I have doubts about the plausibility of Wade's thesis, she writes like a dream. The dialogue she creates for the ten members of the Riot Club, a fictionalised version of the Bullingdon, fizzes like champagne. It's pitch-perfect. She captures brilliantly the immature hesitations and ambivalence of this group of young toffs towards their joint enterprise. Half the time they enjoy shouting 'Fuck you we're the Riot Club' and flashing large wads of cash every time they meet an obstacle. But the bravado is only skin-deep and when challenged they revert back to being well-mannered public school sixth-formers, worried about their future careers. The performances are universally excellent, particularly RADA's Joshua McGuire, who reminds me of a younger Tom Hollander in the role of Guy Bellingfield. Hats off to director Lyndsey Turner and designer Anthony Ward (Enron) , who create an utterly believable framework for the action. In a play like this -- essentially an ensemble piece with a large cast -- it's a challenge to create individual characters but Wade does this quite deftly, suggesting faultlines and tensions within the group. My criticism is that the expositional first half of the play is too slow to build up to a climax, and should have been trimmed by about 20 minutes. The internal tensions of the Riot Club never develop into full-blown conflict, which means the play lacks both the economy and the intensity of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, another play about male bonding and rivalry. The Riot Club's motto is 'All for one and one for all' and the conflict Wade opts for is between the group and the outside world, in the shape of the well-meaning but hopelessly naff landlord Chris, his student daughter Rachel and the visiting prostitute Charlie. When the mayhem gets out of hand, the group save their future careers by agreeing that only one of them should take the rap, but I would have liked to see a 'morning after' scene exploring this in greater depth.
While the main action of the play takes place in real time in the dining room of a country pub, it is bookmarked at the start and finish by two scenes in a London gentleman's club involving Jeremy, a Riot Club alumnus and godfather to Guy. There's a conflict which the author hasn't quite resolved between the idea of the Riot Club as a quasi-masonic establishment brotherhood and the idea of it as a marginalised throwback to the 18th century world of aristocratic power and wealth which is out of step with the modern world. The young bloods seem to have lots of money but some of them are also impoverished aristocrats whose stately homes have been turned over to the National Trust. They feel themselves as persecuted outsiders, deprived of their traditional ownership rights over British society. Wade's ghastly-but-charming toffs don't quite know who they are; the most telling moment in the play is when one reads out the club president's cringe-making application letter for a job at Deutsche Bank. But I think part of the confusion is also in the mind of the playwright, who is not quite sure if her satire is aimed at the meritocratic vulgar rich or the marginalised aristocracy.
To my mind the antics of the Riot Club and its real-life equivalent are just a very specific form of a more general British behaviour pattern -- all-male drink-fuelled hooliganism. If you're at the top end of the scale, you drink two or three bottles of claret each and trash a country hotel; if you're middle class you get legless on best bitter a rugby club tour of the West Country and smash a few windows; if you're working class, you follow the England football team across the channel, drink ten pints of Stella and have a fight with either rival fans or the police, or both. The affinities are more important than the differences. There are real faultlines of class and wealth in British society, but I'm not sure this play quite fingers them.
Nonetheless, Posh is another triumphant vindication for the Royal Court's ability to nurture new writing. The current run is sold out and deservedly so. Oxford University won't find this play very helpful to its image, but that can't be helped; just when everyone had started to forget Brideshead Revisited, along comes another work about young men and their favourite teddy bears. However I did spot one mistake which suggests that Laura Wade may possibly have been to Cambridge (horror) rather than Oxford; one character refers to a 'supervision' rather than a 'tutorial'. Am I right?