Melissa Blease reviews Laura Wade’s Posh, starring Tyger Drew-Honey, on at Theatre Royal Bath until 28 September
Every time British playwright Laura Wade’s upper crust melodrama Posh – which premiered at London’s Royal Court Theatre during the 2010 General Election – gets revisited, it’s touted as more timely/relevant/sentient than ever before. And indeed, almost a decade on since the play’s first airing, it still ticks all three timely/relevant/sentient boxes: many of the posh boys ruling our country today can only be described as, at best, a bunch of over-privileged, oafish toffs looking after their own best interests – and Posh offers an insight into their preparatory backstory.
Established over two centuries ago, The Bullingdon Club is a covert all-male dining club exclusively for University of Oxford undergraduates, its members selected on wealth, family heritage and future ambitions. The group upholds all manner of perverse rituals, dress codes and codes of conduct, and their banqueting events are infamous for destructive behaviour, from vandalism to physical assault. David Cameron, Boris Johnson and George Osborne were all BC-ers during their student years, as were countless politicians, heads of businesses, members of the British nobility and toffs with enough cash to buy their way in. If you find such a perversely compelling institution fascinating, Posh is the old boys’ club for you as Wade’s Riot Club is a fictionalised version of a Bullingdon Club reunion, set in a countryside gastropub where a group of 10 meet for dinner, and pretty much told in real time.
Men behaving badly is hardly a new concept… and neither is it class-related. Visit certain high street pubs, curry houses or takeaways on a Saturday night and you’ll often witness large groups of (usually) men – often stag parties, or reunions, or winning team celebrations – from all walks of life, of all ages and all classes, behaving badly indeed: drunk, vomiting, and brawly; lecherous, angry and unhinged. But it’s unlikely that any of any of these marauding morons are future power mongers of the country – for those people, as we know all too well, consider themselves to be above the very laws of the land that their families, going back generations, oversee.
Tyger Drew-Honey is highly engaging as opportunistic brat pack bigot Alistair Ryle – its just a shame that he slightly loses his nerve when delivering what’s surely one of the play’s most clarifying moments: a key speech berating the ‘lesser classes’ for their lack of provenance. The moral, social and cultural implications of Ryle’s philosophies are vile to the max, but Drew-Honey shouldn’t feel responsible for softening the blow.
Meanwhile, Joseph Tyler Todd is efficiently obsequious as down-at-heel (by this group’s standards, at least) George Balfour and Jamie Littlewood is charismatically glossy as haughty parvenu Dimitri Mitropoulos. Standing out from the crowd in more ways than one, we have pub landlord Chris trying to make sense of it all (Peter McNeil O’Connor, making perfect sense of his role), Isobel Laidler as his audacious waitress daughter Rachel, and Ellie Nunn as smart call girl Charlie – oh of course the boys order “a prozzie” to entertain them. And Charlie’s cool refusal to pander to their whims is very entertaining indeed. But overall, we’re on ensemble territory here – and this is one commendably tight ensemble.
Away from the grim goings on, there’s comedy in among the distinctly unfunny, uneasy turbulence (asked by a homelessness man if he has any change George replies: “really sorry, I’ve only got notes”; the references to the missing bird in the 10-bird roast are hilarious; and some subtle artistry, too – the inevitable trashing of the dining room is played out in balletic slo-mo to music from Swan Lake, ending with the inevitable bout of serious violence that owes more to Stanley Kubrick than Quentin Tarantino for inspiration.
Ego, entitlement, and ambition; aggression, defensive realism and charm offensives: beneath their floppy fringes, the Posh boys certainly ain’t pretty, and the machinations that drive their birthright brotherhood are downright disgusting. But whether or not this compelling (if slightly overlong) drama makes any kind of impact away from the theatre isn’t entirely clear. If you want to witness a bunch of over-privileged, oafish toffs looking after only their own best, oafish interests in real time/real life, just turn the TV news on.
Main image: Tyger Drew-Honey as Alistair Ryle in Posh. Credit: PhotoTech