Laura Wade’s new play, Posh, opened in the middle of the election campaign, as intended, as a minor intervention in that process. Set during one evening in the dining room of a rural pub-restaurant, it followed the ‘Riot Club’ in their arcane rituals as they drink and eat to excess and then smash the room up. It’s based loosely on the Bullingdon Club at Oxford, whose former members include the current Mayor of London, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister. Any club that produced the three most powerful politicians in England is worth examining and I’ve been looking forward to it.
The play takes place in the private dining room of The Bull’s Head, a hotel-pub-restaurant in rural Oxfordshire. The action covers around four hours on a Saturday evening, with two ellipses as we go from pre-meal to end of starters, then from main meal to pudding. There’s also a prologue and an epilogue, a couple of weeks before and after the main action, I would guess. The cast comprises ten (male) members of the club; the owner of the hotel and his daughter; a (female) escort; and an older Tory grandee, only seen in the prologue and epilogue. The play formally set out as a two-act play.
We meet Guy, a second-year Oxford undergraduate meeting Jeremy, a wealthy high-Tory friend of his father. Guy is disappointed in his experience of the Riot Club, which does not seem to have the extremes of behaviour than Jeremy recalls. Guy plans to challenge the current president, James Leighton-Masters. Then the Club assembles and we discover that various members are jostling for position, having arranged various extreme courses and other ‘entertainments’ (Harry has booked a high-class prostitute, whom he naively imagines will happily agree to sucking them all off under the table). The evening descends fairly quickly into drunkenness, vomiting, occasional doggerel poetry and constant bantering. They clumsily flirt with Rachel, the proprietor’s daughter. Finally they smash the room up but when the owner protests, rather than meekly accepting a blank cheque, they attack him very violently. Alistair is chosen by the group to be their scapegoat. Some time later, we see Alistair talking to Jeremy; he thinks the Club should be disbanded, arguing that the superiority of his class is something that should be stripped of its irrelevant traditions but pursued ruthlessly. This impresses Jeremy who maps out a healthy future of the young man in the Party.
It’s a good play. The dialogue is ripe and funny and fluent. The sheer foulness of the attitudes expressed is all too convincing. The production was tremendous; a real ensemble performance with some wonderful entr’actes as the Riot Clubbers perform a capella and in their fruitiest accents modern bling classics like ‘Wearin’ my Rolex’ and ‘Dance Wiv Me’. What’s so exquisitely timed about the play is that you roar with horrified laughter at the antics of these fucking shits and then you remember that these fucking shits are now running the country. Wade’s found a number of ways of making a meal into a story; there are rivalries between the members to succeed, or maybe even supplant, the current president of the Club. These efforts, including a ridiculous last-days-of-Rome course at the meal, and a catastrophic booking of a prostitute, are tied to the formal organisation of the meal, which is dramatically neat.
There are some intensifications of the ritual; the oaths, the rules, the costumes - which at one point flare into further life with the arrival of the ghost of the Club’s founder - and there are games and forfeits galore. This makes the play continually watchable, oiled smoothly by bitingly horrible dialogue and characters.
Two small reservations.
First: I met a friend in the interval who asked me what I thought and I said I was enjoying it but that also I just felt like someone was repeatedly ramming my face in shit. I never quite lost that feeling. It is funny; but the funnier it is, the less funny it really is. I’m not Billington, I don’t want the play to sternly offer a punchy moral to the story, but I did wonder how sharply the political point of it all had been drawn.
Second, there was a bit of a punchy moral to the ending. The (slightly less persuasive) bit of the story had the Riot Club turn on the owner of the pub, kicking him half to death. Then they choose a scapegoat to take the rap. In the final scene a Tory grandee whom we’ve met at the beginning of the play meets the chosen scapegoat. This young man has been the most extreme advocate of aristocratic privilege and of cutting loose from the mob. In a rather conspiratorial scene, the grandee listens to some of his ideas - even though they include disbanding the Riot Club - and offers to have the charges dropped and, after a brief career in finance, will welcome him into the Tory Party, where, it is suggested, a consitutency and perhaps seat in Cabinet will be waiting for him. The important part of this scene is that the young posh thug’s belief that they should get rid of the absurd trappings of aristocratic entitlement and elitism is intended to remind us of David Cameron’s renewal of the Conservatives. The suggestion seems to be that the New Tories are still the Old Tories, blue in tooth and claw.
I don’t doubt that the Tory party has literally and figuratively covered up crimes, but this seemed to reduce a rather more multiple anatomisation of upper-class masculinity in the first part of the play and a political analysis of the Cameroons to a crudely reductive point. Without the violent attack, I’m pretty sure the play would have worked fine (maybe the sheer pointlessness of the cost, the food, the drinking, the vandalism would have been its own accusation) - but then perhaps Laura Wade feared it the play would run out of dramatic steam. I think she could have kept her nerve and refused to point such a clear moral. If we didn’t think the behaviour was foul throughout and noticed the links between the Bullingdon Club and the Tory Party’s commanding heights, I’m not sure the ending was going to help.
The moment when the founder of the Riot club appears - Earl Riot (or Ryot as we later discover - the whole ethos of the club has derived from a misspelling) is interesting but half-hearted; he says all the things that Alistair will say in the final scene, so it’s not clear why the break from realism is happening. This may have just been unclear in the production.
Finally, though, a probably patronising and stupid point. It’s a really amazing play to see by a woman. Not that women can’t write like this (I’m thinking of some of Serious Money) but this, hard on the heels of Enron, is once again breaking down some of the dramaturgical barriers between men and women. These two plays - the economic documentary play and the lads’ night out play - have been rather annexed by the guys in recent years. It’s also pretty surprising coming from Laura Wade whose plays have seemed to me fairly gentle. Yes it’s probably a patronising position, but I was very struck and cheered by it.