Laura Wade has made a number of revisions to her Royal Court play about the excessive behaviour of a group of Oxford-educated young men since it first opened in 2010, in the middle of the general election campaign. The play now makes reference to the Coalition government though its central premise remains the same. In fact it feels even more timely now given the ongoing revelations of the Leveson Inquiry and the way in which the recent budgetary cuts have forced a focus on the glaring chasm between the haves and have-nots.
An elite group of Oxford undergraduates meet in the dining room of a gastro pub for a night of extravagant debauchery. This exclusive dining club, based on the notorious Bullingdon Club (which famously includes David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson amongst its former members), is not simply an overindulgent student body out for a good time. Its secret affiliates are clearly meant to represent the next generation of right-wing political animals.
The members of the Riot Club live up to their name. They are a grotesque bunch, with few redeeming features. This tendency towards caricature is perhaps the play’s main weakness, but Wade also amply demonstrates that, whatever your social standing, a group of lads out on the lash is a always a recipe for disaster. The hooliganism of these privileged, upper-class diners, fuelled by copious quantities of fine wine and champagne, is no less brutal than the violence that erupted during the 2011 riots. Driven by an acute sense of entitlement, the men also display a profound misogyny. They hire a prostitute, and become belligerent when she declines to service them all. They then assault their waitress, before trying to buy themselves out of trouble.
Lyndsey Turner’s taut, high-energy production is given shape and structure by a number of musical interludes, featuring the entire cast singing a cappella. There is also plenty of humour on display in the strange, ritualistic games the men play, their elaborate formal dress, the childish sparring and ridiculous drinking challenges. In the end, Posh’s most resonant message is a political one. The students spend their time together complaining about Labour’s legacy, bemoaning the fact that many of them have been forced to open their country estates to the public, and venting their spleen against the impoverished. Their various tirades reveal how out of touch they are with reality. As the ten-strong party become increasingly inebriated, events gradually spiral out of control and end in an unexpected, senseless act of violence.
Wade has written a brilliant ensemble piece and the rapport between the cast is considerable. Leo Bill stands out as the odious Alistair Ryle whose hatred of the poor swiftly translates into violent malevolence against anyone he considers his inferior and Tom Mison also makes an impression as the Riot Club’s president, one of the few to retain a shred of decency during the resulting mayhem.
Anthony Ward’s detailed set design is visually very striking, encompassing both the blood red pub dining room and the panelled interior of a London club, and the portraits through which the characters burst are a playful touch. Posh is a play of uncomfortable truths laced with necessary humour, one that is perhaps more resonant now than when it was first performed.