Pleasance Theatre, London – until 22 April 2017
Guest reviewer: Rosalind Freeborn
“I’m sick of poor people” shouts one of the thrusting young men seated around a table groaning with empty wine and champagne bottles. Uniformed buttons have been unfastened, waistbands loosened and ties are now hanging louchely from necks. The much fabled Riot Club, a group of entitled young Oxford undergraduates, are celebrating the revival of their exclusive club, notorious for the drunken mayhem and destruction they cause to hapless establishments who indulge them.
When first seen in 2010, POSH was played entirely by men, with one female – the waitress, of course. In this clever reimagining of the play, the male protagonists are played by women. This is quite a zeitgeist thing; gender is the buzzword of the moment and, indeed, there is no reason why an actor of either sex should not competently play a role of either sex. And this cohesive company of excellent actors make a cracking job of it. Once we’d got over the exaggerated shoulder swagger, purposeful strutting, occasional pelvic thrusts and booming lower register voices, it settled down. I was perfectly happy to believe that these actors were playing male roles despite keeping their long hair flowing and pretty faces made up. Indeed, the atmosphere fizzed with testosterone as the ten club members joshed with each other, vied for supremacy and bullied the weaker ones.
The cast of 12 have a cleverly designed set to work with – hats off to Sara Perks for sterling work on the costumes too, a mixture of military and dinner jacket. The round dining table was set on a revolve so that, even when everyone was seated, the action never felt static. In fact, they all seemed to be sitting on pins, ready to spring up and hold forth at a moment’s notice.
What we see in this play is the mind-set that goes with privilege and a sense of entitlement. All these young men have been expensively educated (Eton is frequently referenced) come from aristocratic or wealthy families and assume that it is their class, their layer of society and their desire to protect their own kind which will motivate their ambition for positions of power in Government, industry and society.
Of course, in 2010, the UK was indeed run by exactly these young men in the shape of Cameron, Osborne and Johnson. What was striking about the play was the paucity of new ideas amongst our young characters. Their main aim in life, it seemed, was not to better themselves or better the circumstances of other people or even try anything different, all they wanted was to maintain their level of wealth, position and power and ignore everyone else.
Money speaks. This is shown in their belief that they can buy off the landlord of The Bull who has provided his private room for their revels innocent of their hell-raising reputation. He represents the “poor person” whom they revile as “not understanding” their position and entitlement and, in the second half, falls victim to their drunken excesses.
This is an impressive company piece. The characters are well drawn and meld together in an uneasy Eton Mess. There are some stand out performances, particularly from Toni Peach who plays the unimpressed but victimized waitress and also a fabulously sassy call girl who quite reasonably refuses to “do all of you under the table”. And Sarah Thom channels the controlling views of a Lord of the Realm and former Riot Club member advising the young generation ; she also plays the bewildered Landlord appalled by his young client’s demands.
Of the ten Riot Club members it feels unfair to single anyone out but Serena Jennings was excellent as the aggressive, bullying, Ryle who is exhorted to ‘take it for the team’ after causing the most grievous harm of the evening. And I thought Molly Hanson made an impressive transformation into the ‘phantom’ of Lord Riot, complete with powder and periwig, who encouraged the current generation to maintain the ‘standards’ established back in his day.
This production of POSH works very successfully and reinforces the view that gender doesn’t matter. A good actor is a good actor and a good play is a good play.