Charles Webb’s The Graduate has permeated pop culture for well over 50 years, through innumerable adaptations, including the stage version written by Terry Johnson. The story centres on Benjamin Braddock, and his seduction by the older Mrs Robinson, as well as his subsequent falling in love with the Robinsons’ daughter Elaine. Parodies and imitations of its narrative have taken place on stages and screens of every size, undoubtedly due to the iconic film adaptation with its stellar cast and soundtrack. But beyond that, Benjamin’s anxieties and sense of disillusionment with life post-university will never cease to resonate with each new generation of students.
These anxieties are at the heart of Hild Bede Theatre’s uproariously funny production of The Graduate. A curiosity of performing this play in student theatre is having a cast and crew made up mostly of undergraduates, each having to face the prospect of leaving university, as Ben does, with no real life experience or sense of direction ahead. Particular mention must therefore go to Matthew Davey who gave a consistently strong performance as Ben. The bumbling, indecisive nature of Benjamin’s character is rendered superbly by Davey and the performance put one in mind of a slightly less verbose Hamlet living in the Californian suburbs of the 1960s.
Sticking with the Hamlet theme for a moment, it was striking to see how often the play draws parents and children of the same gender together. Early on we see Ben and his father engage in a chat about sexuality which became progressively more awkward and hilarious as the scene continued. There are similarly fraught conversations between Mrs Robinson and Elaine that move from the drunkenly affectionate to the violently angry. This parent-child tension with all its Freudian undertones was expounded brilliantly by Kieran Laurie as Mr Braddock and Tania Chakraborti as Mrs Braddock. Laurie provides just the right sort of fatherly authority – slightly wet and perpetually outraged – for Ben to rebel against. Chakraborti’s performance as the over-bearing mother is suitably understated given her character’s marginalisation and replacement with Mrs Robinson.
Don’t be fooled, however, into thinking the play is overly dense. The directors Zephy Losey and Emily Fox have managed to draw out every last humorous drop from the script, as well as maintaining the tension and tenderness between its characters. If one wished to be slightly pretentious and clichéd one might say the play works on several levels, and that is also true of its physical staging. The set occupies both the floor space beneath the purpose built stage in Caedmon Hall and the elevated corner at stage-left. Whilst this makes the performance slightly more intimate, it nevertheless resulted in a two-dimensional set design. Worse still, the little room available both behind and on-stage made it necessary for each set change to involve a complete overhaul. The ensuing gaps in the performance ought to have been shorter, though it’s a minor complaint and the overall pace was largely unaffected.
The stand out reason to see The Graduate is, quite simply, Corinna Harrison. The performance Harrison gives as Mrs Robinson is charged with both sexual energy and a delicate humanity. Despite her tremendous nonchalance, there is a vulnerability to Mrs Robinson’s character that Harrison draws out particularly well in the exchanges with Ben. While Ben would sooner chat about art, Mrs Robinson wants nothing more than to escape her mundane existence and her long-running marriage of convenience to Mr Robinson (played with terrifying and brilliant vigour by Matt Lloyd).
Harrison must also be lauded for daring to bare all and removing her (Freudian) slip in the name of theatre. At no point, however, does her performance descend into the pornographic; once the initial shock at seeing a naked body had worn off the audience became more vested in Ben’s hilariously awkward response to the seduction. This combination of comedy and sex was perfectly balanced throughout and Losey and Fox can safely avoid any accusation of putting on smut. The nudity is essential for expounding Mrs Robinson’s vulnerability and disabusing Ben of his innocence. One felt that the sexual revolution of the late 1960s was wasted on the likes of Ben, and was really of greater benefit to the previous generation who could better appreciate their new found liberty.
If done badly The Graduate could easily become a farcical sex comedy. What Hild Bede Theatre have brought us instead is a tender and deeply funny story about a convoluted love triangle involving a young man, an older woman, and her idealistic daughter. Added to that a soundtrack that went beyond the standard Simon and Garfunkel repertoire and you have the necessary essentials for a brilliant show. A ticket to this production might be the best fiver you spend all year.
‘The Graduate’ will be showing in Caedmon Hall from Wednesday, 9th of November until Saturday, 12th of November at 19:30. Book your tickets here.
Photograph: Hild Bede Theatre