This regional premiere of Laura Wade’s Posh falls, like the original production, in a general election year. However, where the original spoke to a moment of (compromised) Tory return to power, rendering the Riot Club’s reassertion of arrogance and privilege foreboding and prescient, this production appears long after the rot has set in. In Susannah Tresilian’s production, the Riot Club – Wade’s fictionalised representation of the Bullingdon Club – is quite clearly a relic, a performance of privilege long past its sell-by date. After five years of coalition rule, the grumblings and grudges of the rich boys against their loss of status feel as much directed at a betrayed Conservative promise as a reaction against New Labour.
The joy of Posh is in its careful characterisation of its ten leads, differentiating the positions and principles held by the Oxford elite while still holding even the most sympathetic to account. Jamie Satterthwaite’s George emerges as a kindly but oafish giant, shocked at the turn of events yet entirely malleable. Tom Palmer as the Club President holds the strongest views against the mistreatment of their hosts, yet stands by when it counts. And Tom Hanson’s Hugo fights his friends on behalf of conscience at the play’s end, yet far too late. Among the debris of the room they have wrecked, with a barely breathing body on the floor and sirens in the distance, the best that can be said of any of these young men is that they allowed a man to be beaten to within an inch of his life.
Among the other diners, Jordan Metcalfe inevitably stands out as Alistair, the advocate of elite exceptionalism. During a first half that allows each diner to define their position, Metcalfe remains admirably taciturn, his occasional jibes only hinting at the tirade launched just before the interval against a bourgeoisie that no longer knows its place. Quickly establishing himself as the play’s antagonist with his bitter and intelligent wit, Alistair establishes himself at the far end of the spectrum to George. The other diners combine sycophantic giggling (Ed), vengeful bitterness (Toby), complicit banter (Harry) and, in Dario Coates’s quiet but narrow-eyed Miles, the potential of physical violence. Alongside this, the mega-rich Dimitri and the recklessly ambitious Guy trade barbs as each competes to take over as president. The combined effect is one of a cabinet meeting, each participant bringing a specific set of prejudices and motivations to discussions that range from the National Trust’s ‘exploitation’ of their ancestral homes to the rules of Musical Chairs.
The play has its cake and eats it, inviting its audience to enjoy vicariously the display of ostentatious wealth while also ridiculing and undermining that display. Interestingly, Rachel – the daughter of the landlord, who has recently graduated with a First from Newcastle – becomes the audience identification figure, standing in bewildered scorn while the men skip around a table in their coat tails and offering common-sense putdowns. Her intrusion into the closed, privileged world of the men embarrasses them, occasioning their retaliation in a shocking scene of assault as Rachel is first barred from leaving and then forcibly kissed and groped by Miles. As the boys turn their aggression back on to the audience’s proxy, the play condemns the audience’s own fascination with and silent complicity in the culture of privilege.
The play’s theatricality is apparent in the covering of scene changes with interludes from Joanne Evans’s opera singer. Evans, doubling as Charlie the prostitute, shifts between snippets of high culture (replacing the original production’s a capella pop songs) and the object of the Riot Club’s most outrageous scorn. Other moments sit less well: the appearance of Lord Riot, accompanied by smoke and flickering lights, is initially emphatic but immediately forgotten, and the trashing of the room itself feels choreographed, lacking the energy that would build to a more plausible final act of violence. Yet the play’s point remains just as prescient as it did when first produced, only now loaded with the experience of having been governed by the inheritors of these traditions for five years. The inevitability of the worst offender being invited to the Lords to ‘discuss his future’ feels more vital than ever.