Theatre Royal, Windsor
A late catch-up for this short tour from Theatre Royal York: but blimey, well worth it. A drawing-room drama of manners with deep, tangled universally familiar roots. It is the second of Jonathan Lewis’ new trilogy on education and the national neurosis surrounding it which skews and poisons our cultural, class, political and economic life.
We meet Mark and Charlotte: he an MP, she a high-flying publishing executive recovering from cancer treatment. Lewis himself, debonair and affable, all too credible as a Tory MP, plays Mark; Imogen Stubbs is the mother, clever and a touch fragile. They are coaxing and helicoptering their privately educated son Tom through A levels, determined that he will get enough A-stars to meet his Cambridge offer; his girlfriend Frida has an offer too, and they are planning their gap year. The fact that Tom would really rather go to film school is brushed aside. It is clear that the worst they can all imagine, even Tom, is not only missing the star on the A but “something fucking tragic like a B”.
Lewis has a marvellous ear for dialogue: banter and mild argument at the start (we’re on the cusp of the referendum vote) place the family precisely and not unlikeably in their class, and neatly suggest the cracks which will widen to chasms later. It is in the best sense Ayckbournian British realism (Damian Cruden directs, fast and deftly). You could argue that one absurdly over-ambitious, entitled rich family represent only a tiny sliver of society and education; but what is so gripping is the realisation that they matter. Their expectations and behaviour reverberate through the whole system.
Not only is Mark, as we gradually realize, engaging in a piece of shockingly unethical cheating on his son’s behalf, and involving the cleverer, poorer, academy-educated girlfriend in it, but they have been gaming the system ever since he was born. Mark does it with his mantra “Honesty will always be trumped by audacity…we’re not in the age of threepenny bits and the Railway Children”. And Charlotte, technically moral, does it with her desperate oversight and anxiety to get her chick to the top of every list. For all her separate career and her cancer, she cries during his A level ordeal, “I am turning over every paper with you, writing every essay, checking every spelling..”. In the past – a very funny sequence makes clear – some of this has been literally true. She actually wrote his prizewinning story about a lonely clown, and Mark too did his share of both interference and political schmoozing for Tom.
But Tom hates it all. The weight of their deluded expectation has carried him through his ten GCSEs with stars, but he self-harms, has no confidence that he can do anything for himself, and is emotionally dependent on Frida. In the second , more intense act we get a lot more back-story (some usefully disgraceful, some marginally unnecessary) and some vigorous fighting fury. Stubbs, who I have admired ever since her gloriously violent Private Lives in Manchester, explodes like a rocket and shoves the MP’s phone down the sink shredder. The political importance of Lewis’ anger at the gameable system swings over into real, universally relatable family pain. They may be high-flyers, but they are a mess.
As a play, traditionally well-built, it’s an engaging, tense and horribly enjoyable evening, and I hope it goes further. Lewis is unnervingly convincing as the MP, at once a loving parent and a self-absorbed popinjay; Imogen Stubbs can, as ever, express the hugest of emotions, especially maternal, and all the volatility of a fragile, stress-seeking personality cracking through an elegantly groomed facade. Matt Whitchurch gives Tom a nice lunkish, sullen desperation, shot through with anxious loyalty – God, we underrate that in teenagers! Robyn Cara is Frida, sanest of them all but caught up in their affluent craziness and upper-middle assurance.
Lewis’ last education play – A Level Playing Field – was good, but this one moves sharply up a notch and should get a wider tour or some capital attention. All the more impressive since Lewis is fresh from creating and directing Soldier On with a group of PTSD veterans only weeks ago. Scroll down for that…
THREE MORE PERFORMANCES – TOUR ENDING
theatreroyalwindsor.co.uk to Saturday