By Sophia Atkinson
A Durham revival of Laura Wade’s 2010 play Posh, famously remade in 2014 as the film The Riot Club, was long overdue. Initially performed at The Royal Court, the play morphs into different stances when played to different demographics. For the majority of the audience, the backgrounds of the rioters before them were none too remote from those they brushed shoulders with in college dining halls.
The play is centred on ten undergraduates at Oxford “getting chateaued” at a rural gastropub in a ceremonial dinner for the broken brotherhood of the Riot Club. The events at the dinner are bookended by the sinister Jeremy (Jack Palmer) who begins by advising the aspirational Guy Bellingfield (Jasper Millard) the best way to leave his mark and ends by persuading the extreme Alistair Ryle (Ed Chapman) to take the rap for an assault committed by all ten on the landlord. The exposition and closing aspects of the piece are neatly played by Palmer, whose clipped accent and preference for comfort and ease over awkwardness and ‘talk’, well-captures a British politician reminiscing over golden days of ‘rugger’ with his godson, Millard. The closing scene with Palmer and Chapman exposes a disturbing conspiracy; that the network of boys playing at men in re-enactments of revolutions past underpin all major decision making, occupying shadowy positions of power. While elements of this conspiracy bordered on cliché with regard to its facelessness, the issues are certainly topical enough to generate a feeling of discomfort.
Indeed, the directors, Alice Clarke and Hetty Hodgson, succeed in sustaining an air of unease throughout. Nonetheless, the performance is notable, particularly in the first half, for how quickly the audience warm up to quips like “Girls for now girls for later” and incessant homophobic jibes – despite Marcus Dell as Ed Montgomery’s lukewarm reassurance “It’s okay to be gay.” One can’t help but feel the predominant privilege of the audience aids a sense of complicity with initial, ‘harmless japes.’
The ensemble is incredibly strong and their seamless transitions from light hearted banter to ambitious one-upmanship, from schoolboy reminiscences to public humiliation and violence were effortless. The night's progression, shown by lights going down and a sample of ‘Sexy Back’ or Kanye West as the cast danced round the table to change positions were amusing even if earlier intensity was sometimes compromised. These shifts do, however, allow the audience to appreciate the expressive facial contortions of individuals as the night progresses, regardless of seating position.
Although the entire ensemble are impressive, Jack Firoozan’s George Balfour, was, undoubtedly, a gem in the cast. Convincingly portraying an inebriated junior club member, perfectly timing a delayed cheer or naïve comment he frequently drew laughter from the audience. Jake Hathaway, too, shone as Toby Maitland, particularly in a rather extraordinary recovery from the depths of inebriation, rising up as Lord Riot, the spirit of revelry. Although a male-dominated play, strong female performances, particularly from, Sarah Cameron as a dignified escort, showcased the club’s aggressive form of masculinity, justifying rape culture by labelling women “whores.”
I do however think the play’s climax could have more impact; the trashing was performed with gusto but the attack on the landlord, although convincingly played by John Broadhead, seemed to lack the extreme brutality the scene required. Given the close quarters of the audience who were placed on three sides and at stage level, this scene has the potential to be incredibly powerful, but I felt that something was held back that the cast undoubtedly had the ability to give.
Overall, the subdued lighting and setting in the Durham Union debating chambers completely suits the play. It also serves as a reminder that the pitfalls of entitlement and privilege are aspects which Durham must keep in check.
Photography: Gregor Petrikovič