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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Royal Court


  Jolyon Coy and company/ Ph: Johan Persson

As Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher told us, there is “no such thing as society.” Her successor, John Major, promised that if there was, it would soon be a classless one. The most cursory glance around modern Britain exposes the first statement as obscene, and the second as ludicrous. Not only is social responsibility still of vital importance in order for us to live in a civilised democracy, but the issue of class is alive and rampant. The divide between rich and poor grows ever wider; and at our population’s most atomised, it comprises groups who would scarcely recognise one another’s day-to-day realities.
The Royal Court has often housed dramas that inhabit the world of those at the deprived end of the spectrum: the disenfranchised, the desperate, the marginalised. When he became artistic director in 2007, Dominic Cooke announced his intention to stage plays that dealt with society’s power brokers: the well-born and well-to-do whose offspring fill the private schools and Oxbridge universities, and go on to dominate government and the media. There could hardly be better evidence that Cooke has delivered on his pledge than this new play by Laura Wade, directed with savage style by Lyndsey Turner. And, with a general election in the offing, it certainly couldn’t be better timed.
It begins in an exclusive London gentlemen’s club, where Tory politician Jeremy (an oleaginous Simon Shepherd) is giving his godson Guy (Joshua McGuire) a pep talk. Is he dating the right kind of girl? And is he making his mark at Oxford – not academically, but socially? For Guy is part of the Riot Club, a dining society pointedly similar to the real-life Bullingdon, of which Conservative leader David Cameron and London mayor Boris Johnson were both members. Jeremy emphasies, the allegiances he makes there could protect and perpetuate his privileged existence for a lifetime.
Not that the Riot Club is a politically sophisticated organ. It revolves around regular huzzahs, at which it is customary to gorge on food, get absolutely “chateaued” on expensive wine and then wreck the premises. And why not? reason the repulsive spoilt brats of Turner’s piercingly funny production. They’re prepared to pay for the damage after they’ve had their fun. But a jolly at a rural gastropub – into which the oak panels and oil paintings of Jeremy’s club melt in a brilliant coup de theatre in Anthony Ward’s design – reaches a climax way beyond boorish youthful hijinks, and exposes the baying bloodlust beneath the braying laughter.
Even within its ranks, the Riot is divided, with several members plotting to unseat the current president. In an effort to canvas support, Guy devises an obscenely excessive menu; Harry, who fancies himself a ladies’ man, hires a “prozzer” for entertainment; Dimitri, who as a Greek has never quite won acceptance in the club, organises a post-prandial jaunt to Reykjavik.
But as the booze flows, rage and resentment bubble up. Convinced that their birthright is being stolen from them by foreigners and proles, the young men work themselves into a frenzy of violent rage of which the pub’s landlord and his daughter become the targets. In the horrifying aftermath, will the boys stick together and prove that blue blood is thicker than water? Is there really no mess that money can’t mop up?
The play is fiercely relevant, but if it angers it also amuses. Turner’s production brilliantly conveys the ways in which hidebound tradition collides with the 21st century – the boys, ludicrously attired in tailcoats, engage in between-scenes musical interludes in which they hilariously assay hits by the likes of Dizzee Rascal, and one’s even kitted out with sword and powdered wig. But our laughter at their naivete and their pomposity doesn’t drown out the nagging truth in Wade’s play: Too many men who were once boys like these – who have a blatant disregard for, and disconnection from, the way in which most of us live – are running our country.

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