… even if it doesn’t bite as hard as it could.
In the private room of a rural gastropub, ten members of an exclusive university dining club gather together to eat, drink and make merry. Wealthy, with powerful family connections, and anchored by the archaic traditions of an historic and secretive society, these young men are destined for the halls of power. And they’re ready to cause a riot.
In 2010 Laura Wade made waves when POSH was staged for the first time, at the Royal Court theatre in London. A play about the absurdities of a group of elite Oxford students captured the zeitgeist in a climate of heated political debate, amid a general election that was carving deep divisions among the British populace. After seven years, the play now returns to the London stage, in an all-female version directed by Cressida Carré at the Pleasance Theatre. At a time when women are continuing to take hold of traditionally male territory in theatre, we were interested to see what difference the gender swap would make.
This is a smart production, and in many ways commendable for a faithful interpretation of its subjects. The cast are all strong, and give transformative performances, channeling giddying levels of testosterone to bring their characters to life. There is no underestimating the difficulty of this challenge, and it’s done well. The programme notes say that this production is “not about women playing men” but about “women fulfilling the same roles that men play”. We see the point, but in this instance we’re inclined to disagree… This cast of excellent women do a fantastic job of playing men, lowering voices and changing gaits, adopting specific characteristics in a studied and detailed way. But they are playing men. All masculine pronouns and names are retained, as are the typically male clothing choices. This honours the text and helps to tell the story. But it does mean that after the initial novelty wears off, we are left to watch a collection of young actors just – well… acting very skilfully.
Normally this wouldn’t justify any criticism, and perhaps it doesn’t on this occasion either. If the aim of putting women into these roles is to prove that they can do the job just as well as men and give them an opportunity to inhabit characters the likes of which aren’t perhaps written so often for females, then the production is a resounding success. It’s well produced and superbly acted, and after the first ten minutes or so it’s easy to forget the gender of the people on stage, such is their commitment to their roles.
But doesn’t that miss the point slightly? Surely we already know that women can act just as well as men? Aren’t there bigger arguments to be made here about female inequality and the fight for equal rights, that go far beyond women simply stepping into the shoes of their male counterparts? One feels that given this opportunity to reclaim a brutal and powerful piece of work, the producers had a ripe opportunity to go much further.
All that said, enjoyable performances abound, as the cast are uniformly strong. Verity Kirk has a wonderfully comic turn as the puppy-dog-keen runt of the litter, Ed Montgomery, and Lucy Aarden’s Hugo Fraser-Tyrwhitt has just the right touch of a young Noel Coward, steering clear of high camp in favour of something more nuanced. Another highlight is Toni Peach, whose multi-roling as the play’s only two female characters shows an impressive versatility.
By adapting the play in a more daring way and turning gender stereotypes completely on their heads, this production could have been an opportunity to put a grotesque mirror up to society and help us imagine a parallel world where women hold the power. As it stands, it’s perhaps a little too tasteful – and faithful to its origins – to make any really powerful point. But perhaps that is the point. It may not pack a hugely painful punch, but in terms of putting women in the positions normally reserved for men, it’s certainly a step in the right direction. And overall, a very enjoyable evening of theatre.
GT gives POSH – 3/5