by Laura Wade
Salisbury Playhouse / Nottingham Playhouse production
Thursday 19th March 2015, 14.15
Directed by Susannah Tresilian
Designed by Ellan Parry
Neil Caple as Chris, the pub landlord
Charlotte Brimble as Rachel, his daughter and waitress for the evening
Laurence Kennedy as Jeremy, member of the House of Lords
Joanne Evans as Charlie, a prostitute (or “prozzer.”
Tom Clegg as Toby Maitland (who has to dress as Lord Riot)
Dario Coates as Miles aka Milo
Simon Haines as Dmitri Mitropoulos, Greek multi-millionaire
Tom Hanson as Hugo Fraser-Tyrwhitt
Robbie Jarvis as Harry Villiers
Kafe Keating as Ed Montgomery
Philip Labey as Guy Bellingfield
Jordan Metcalfe as Alistair Ryle (the eventual fall guy)
Tom Palmer as James Leighton-Masters (the president)
Jamie Satterthwaite as George Balfour
I’ve seen the 2014 film of the play, Riot Club, but it’s not been reviewed here because I watched it on DVD. I was told the 2010 Royal Court / West End play had the full feel of the thing. This Nottingham / Salisbury play is only the second production. The film attracted several articles on Oxford University’s Bullingdon Club on which the “Riot Club” in the play is based. The Bullingdon was founded in 1780 as a dining club for wealthy male students. The uniform alone costs £4000, and the club’s reputation is for totally trashing restaurants and paying for the damage in cash. An alleged initiation rite was going up to a street beggar and setting light to a £50 note in front of them.
The three most prominent current Conservatives were members: Prime Minister, David Cameron, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and London mayor Boris Johnston. Past members include King Edward VII, King Edward VIII and Earl Spencer (brother of Princess Diana). In the media, David Dimbleby and Ludovic Kennedy were members. The Bullingdon Club is extreme, but a disquieting aspect of British politics is how the rich boys have taken over again. While Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, James Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher and John Major all came from the “middle classes”, Tony Blair, David Cameron and Nick Clegg all went to elite public schools.
It’s telling that regardless of class, Clement Attlee, Harold Macmillan, Anthony Eden, Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, David Cameron, and Ed Milliband all went to Oxford University. The three post war Prime Ministers who did not attend university were Winston Churchill, James Callaghan and John Major. This makes Gordon Brown (Edinburgh University) the only post-war PM who attended a university OTHER THAN Oxford. It could be added that Brown never won an election. The two best Prime Ministers we never had, Shirley Williams and Barbara Castle both went to Oxford. All three recent Labour candidates for leadership: Ed Milliband, David Milliband, Ed Balls, went to Oxford as did Peter Mandelson. In 2011 eight members of the Coalition Cabinet had been to Oxford.
Deputy PM and Liberal leader Nick Clegg went to Cambridge. That reminds me of a story going the rounds when Diane Abbott stood for leadership of the Labour Party. She doesn’t stand a chance, said political insiders. Was that because she was black and a woman? Of course not, was the reply. It’s because she went to Cambridge University, not Oxford. A similar story comes in the TV sitcom Yes, Minister where the minister comments that Oxford is served by both the M4 and M40 motorways while (then, before the M11 was built), no motorways serve Cambridge. Sir Humphrey, head of the civil service smiles and informs him that the Ministry of Transport has always been run by Oxford graduates. After thirty years of writing textbooks with Oxford University Press on the cover, it would be churlish not to admit that I have profited from the reflected glory.
POSH is running at the same pre-election time as 1968’s The Ruling Class, set 40 years earlier. I saw them five days apart. My review of The Ruling Class makes similar points on the domination of English public schools.
Dmitri (Simon Haines) arrives, Landlord in background
The play? The first half is 90 minutes, and when the interval came I would have guessed I’d been sitting there for an hour at most. It was so involving and fast-moving that time flew. I thought the film pretty good, but no more. The play is much better, and it’s the natural milieu for it. The script is surefire all the way. Oddly, the film added some very good bits, ideas that in a way improve our involvement. The main one is the addition of Guy’s comprehensive school girlfriend, Lauren Small. In the play, she’s merely mentioned … Uncle Jeremy, Guy’s godfather and member of the House of Lords, says he’s never met anyone named Lauren, then adds she must have been very bright to get into Oxford … and then guesses that she “must go like the clappers.” In the film, Lauren’s role is sweet and poignant … I think that in the stage play, Rachel, the landlord’s daughter, has some of the same lines. So an excellent addition isn’t there, but even so, I still prefer the stage version.
Those snobby putdown lines cascade throughout the play. I loved the correction of “waitress” to “sommelier.” Then the landlord says “dessert” but of course those upper class boys say “pudding.” I am not in the slightest ashamed of being from lower middle class parents and from working class grandparents and indeed “rural poor” great grandparents. I say “dessert.” It reminded me of when Karen asked for a serviette, and it was indeed in a formal setting in Oxford, and someone deigned to say snottily ‘Oh, you mean a napkin.’ ‘No,’ she replied firmly, ‘I said serviette, and I meant to say serviette.” (BTW, on a survey of language in use, rather than snobbish prejudice, if it’s paper, and it was, the majority of British English speakers say “serviette.”)
The play is bookended by two scenes in the House of Lords, in front of a blue curtain. The first is Uncle Jeremy and his godson, Guy, the second at the end, is Alistair Ryle and Uncle Jeremy. These are crucial.
Toby (as the ceremonial Lord Riot) peruses the “Ten Bird Roast” ordered for dinner
The Riot Club has booked a room at the Bull’s Head, a gastropub, for their termly dinner, where the intent will be to trash the place. They arrive one at a time, and gradually assemble. I particularly liked the arrival of George, who was very tall indeed, next to the landlord who was very short, George is the titled aristocratic offspring of a major stately home, and rather nicer than most of them, but … awfully nice but dim. Doesn’t stop him getting to Oxford though. He was delegated to get cocaine for the party but got mugged in the process, a very funny tale which I didn’t recall from the film.
Alistair Ryle (Jordan Metcalfe) holds forth
The plot involves ten people, the club members, sitting at a long dining table. The direction is superb. It will have been a very hard play to block indeed, but it succeeds on all fronts (where Arcadia last month failed with another long table!) They hire a prostitute, but she proves more moral, less money-oriented and better than all of them. The landlord comes with complaints of his other customers, but they throw £50 notes at him. He says he’ll ask the customers, who are there for a Ruby Wedding, if they’ll take it. He won’t himself. All ten club member characters are clearly delineated and Alistair Ryle stays broodingly quiet before he ends Act One , erupting with a long speech full of hatred for … well, the “rest of us.”
“Chelsea Trots” … The musical chairs dance
Act two is the trashing of the dining room, after a bizarre musical chairs game, Chelsea Trots, with everyone prancing around, trousers tucked into mustard yellow socks, in which Rachel gets forcibly kissed. Inevitably the landlord’s intervention ends in him being beaten and kicked insensible by three or four of them. Panic ensues, and they agree that one, Ryle, who indeed started the assault, take the blame for all. They will “look after him” but one will have to go to prison. But only one. In the end, Ryle is promised legal defence and a job by Uncle Jeremy. As the vilest of the lot, his “independent mind” is admired. We know he will go far.
After the lashings of blood at Trafalgar Studios, The Globe, The Wanamaker and the RSC recently, the violence is commendably handled. Stylized. No blood. However we still get the point entirely … a memo to all those gore-addicted directors elsewhere.
All fourteen of the cast were excellent. The ten club members, the two girls, the landlord and Uncle Jeremy. The amount of detailed background acting in those big ten / eleven people scenes was first rate, as was the blocking and attention to audience view. The drunkenness is totally believable.
Rachel (Charlotte Brimble) has to serve at table
Joanne Evans had a dual role. Scene changes and props moving was covered by her singing opera (wonderfully) as well as taking the part of Charly, the prostitute. Charlotte Brimble as Rachel displayed the necessary mix of contempt, revulsion and also fear. Rachel is a Newcastle graduate with a first in Modern Languages (“Geordie!’ they hoot.) As I said, in the film, that’s covered by two characters, Lauren, the girlfriend of Guy, and Rachel. Neil Caple is the landlord, and we (or at least I) totally identify with him. A lovely restrained and subtle performance.
You have to wonder how the cast could consume so much liquid during the play. The “dregsing” punishment of Toby (?) for revealing stuff to the Daily Mail involved him drinking ten wine glasses (wuth supposedly foul stuff added) in fast order. You couldn’t do it with grape juice, but you’re talking about at least a litre of coloured water. Both halves involved vast swigging. I’d bet there was a queue for the loos backstage in the interval.
The set was detailed and believable gastropub. It even had an oak-beamed roof, and made great use of angled walls/
In the interval I heard one man of my age quite incandescent with rage at the characters portrayed. I felt my Welsh miner grandfather hovering on my shoulder muttering “Bastards!” too. They lost a few of the audience at the interval. I guess it was a weekday matinee and the use of obscenities was wall to wall. As the fliers say “contains very strong language.”
They state the play was chosen because of the forthcoming election, and it reflects badly on the Conservatives precisely because the three most prominent were in such a club. But to be fair, the Hampstead & Islington Intellectual wing of Labour are another elitist in-group, even if one with far less obnoxious habits. All I’ll say is “The trouble with elections, is that whoever you vote for, you get a politician.”