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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Duke of York's


  Ph: Johan Persson

Laura Wade has updated her politically charged satire about Britain's ruling class since it first appeared at the Royal Court in 2010. There has been an election since then, so for this West End transfer the government is not Labour, but a coalition between the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats, Britain's centrist party, which reflects the current regime. 

But this is still a cutting comedy about those who consider themselves to be Britain's rightful leaders. This lot all go to Oxford, the university whose reactionary students founded the hell-raising Bullingdon Club, a dining club that bears a remarkable similarity to Wade's Riot Club, which also has a reputation for trashing the rooms in which the dinners take place. Members are generally the scions of either the super rich (you have to be to pay for all the damage) or the aristocratic. In Britain, the latter no longer necessarily belong to the former.

So that's the background to the play, with the added tasty morsel of relevance that Britain's current prime minister and chancellor of the Exchequer were both members of Bullingdon, though Wade has said her Riot Club is her own invention. 

Bookended by scenes with a middle-aged establishment figure, the kind of figure Riot Club members are destined to become – powerful, connected and seemingly beyond the law – the bulk of the play is set in a pub dining room, the only venue the club can find after being banned from convening for two terms in a row. Imagine a stag party where the dress code is restoration formal. There is as much testosterone in evidence, but the dialogue is hilariously boorish and unashamedly arrogant. The upper classes don't do shame. 

The toffs are waited on by the pub's lower-middle-class landlord, who is helped by his middle-class daughter. She has climbed a rung on the social ladder because, unlike her father, she went to university. But she is still far below those she and her father serve. As the club members get progressively “chateaued” (posh slang for drunk), the societal fissures become more conspicuous. Resentment that their favoured political party, the Conservatives, have to share power after waiting so long in opposition morphs into complaints about the hoi palloi. Rather incredibly, it's the lack of lower-class deference (something that is supposed to have been jettisoned from British society 50 years ago) that these young Turks so resent.

Wade's is a serious observation that goes to the heart of British class prejudice, but it's one made with a light touch in Lyndsay Turner's production, which is shot through with a seam of entertaining satire. And there are a couple of real coups. A wall of oil paintings depicting Riot Club members from past centuries hilariously comes to life and starts rave dancing to rock music – each figure breaking free of its formal pose. 

Yet although Wade presents her posh targets as figures of fun, we are never permitted to view them with the contempt with which they view others. Whether or not they are in power, they exude a sense of entitlement, and the play, beautifully performed by an ensemble cast, leaves you with the uneasy feeling that it is they who will get the last laugh.


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