'We fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots. Your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service—two dishes, but to one table. That’s the end' Act IV, Scene III, Hamlet
‘The snow must go on!’ I hear someone chuckle for what feels like the fifthieth time as I arrive at the Bristol Improv Theatre. While this joke has become exponentially less funny each time I’ve heard it, it has to be said that everything about this production screams ‘ruthless’. With a snow-induced change of venue, an unflappable cast, and a production team more relentless than the frosty winds of Storm Emma, ‘Posh’ is an undeniable tour-de-force.
Punchy, outrageous, and just on the right side of farcical, Laura Wade’s script unravels ten members of an exclusive all-male Oxford dining society over the course of an evening. They call themselves ‘The Riot Club’, and the hype for DramSoc and Spotlights’s production is suitably anarchic. The show has been sold-out for days, and as I finally take my seat, I’m suddenly aware of my own Russell Group surroundings. Isn’t it all going to feel a bit uncomfortable - a bunch of privileged people, watching a bunch of privileged people, playing a bunch of privileged people? The answer is yes, and that is exactly what the cast and creative team want you to feel.
Other than a smattering of furniture, the set is simply made up of an imposing dining table – the proximity of the stage to the seats feels like a daunting invitation to the dinner itself. Despite a technical issue which caused the text message sound cue to be so loud it literally shook the floor, the resources of this intimate theatre are used remarkably well. Whether it was a result of the venue-change or an intentional decision, the minimal lighting throughout works as an effective contrast to the sharp bursts of colour that bring Thomy Lawson’s fantastically-crafted movement sections to life. Accompanied by Elliot Brett’s impressive sound design, the first of these sequences serves as a compelling introduction to the club members. And what a bunch they are.
It would be easy to approach the Riot Club as an amorphous mass of stock characters for the audience to angrily shoot down like clay pigeons, but directors Asha Osbourne-Grinter and Anna Fenton-Garvey treat these characters with brilliant sensitivity. In spite of expressions frequently getting lost due to actors facing their backs towards the audience, it was plain to see that each role was beautifully decorated with its own idiosyncrasies. In particular, Mimi Paltridge gives an outstanding performance as Alastair Ryle, whose sheer ferocity revitalises the second act through its occasional pacing issues. Jess Garlick’s charming background smirk ensures that Harry Villiers is a sickeningly likeable player, and Oskar House’s portrayal of the plastered Toby Maitland is hysterical and completely convincing.
However, what impressed me the most wasn’t how each character was so distinct, but rather how well Osbourne-Grinter and Fenton-Garvey balanced and justified these personalities in relation to each other. The nervous energy of Laura Marcus’s portrayal of Guy Bellingfield brilliantly countered Guy Woods’s impeccable comic timing as Ed Montgomery, whose vulnerability was reminiscient of an eight-year-old boy being dropped off at boarding school. Phoebe Taylor’s Dimitri Mitropoulous - almost an Old Etonian caricature - was the perfect foil to the more reserved Hugo Fraser-Tyrwhitt. Played by Fred Light, this was the stand-out performance of the night; Light’s understated expression was spellbinding, and his poetic address to the group was delivered with outstanding composure. The human complexities of each character make their presence known, and this is why this piece is so unsettling: I hated myself for not hating them.
While the cast is outstanding, I found myself torn over the casting – more specifically, the decision to cast the club members gender-blind. While Wade’s script is a commentary on extreme classism, it is also an exposition of toxic collective masculinity, and I felt that this was obscured by breaking up the male unit. When Chris confronts the club about assaulting his daughter Rachel (two more superb performances from Stanley Rudkin and Grace Hart), the impact of the accusation “ten of you in the room? Innocent young girl?” doesn’t land without the contrast of one female body being grossly outnumbered by an all-male mob. That said, each cast member’s individual performance reeks of testosterone regardless of gender, and I left the theatre feeling unsettled in the best possible way.
‘Posh’ is, in Wade’s own words, ‘distressingly awesome’ and awesomely distressing; it is as challenging to watch as it is to perform, and my goodness is it performed well. Enormous credit must be given to producers Brenda Callis and Emma Rogerson for sailing through the Met Office warnings with outstanding professionalism - if the show can brave the weather to a different venue, then so can you.