"Posh" is neither elegiac nor feel-good.
The title promises the return of British upper-class drama — the genre that gave audiences everything from “Brideshead Revisited” to “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” “Posh,” however, is neither elegiac nor feel-good. The characters’ extreme behavior looks like satire, but Laura Wade’s depiction of wildly over-privileged students has authentic touches bordering on documentary. What she doesn’t do is turn her darkening, caustic comedy into a satisfying whole.
Wade’s most interesting conceit is to have a group of people as her play’s engine, all played to the hilt by Lyndsey Turner’s ideal cast. They’re the 10 members of a Tory dining society called the Riot Club, not so loosely based on the Bullingdon Club, the notorious Oxford U. dining society-cum-wrecking crew whose by-invitation-only Tory membership eats and drinks to excess, and causes high-level damage — which they then pay for.
As is traditional, the Riot Club is convening for a night’s high-spirited debauchery in the private dining room at a country pub (nicely realized by designer Anthony Ward) whose owner Chris (Daniel Ryan) is unaware of the Club’s agenda.
Aside from lavish comestibles, what’s really on the menu for these sons of lords and land owners — women, being barred, are only there to quite literally serve — is an extravagant diet of snobbery, self-satisfaction, sexism and sneering at anyone beneath them (e.g., absolutely everyone else).
Yet despite being the obverse of college jocks, the members of this social elite are not above jockeying for position, particularly beneath the ineffectual control of club president James (Tom Mison). He meets his match in the brightest of the bunch, Alistair Ryle (thrillingly fierce Leo Bill) who slowly emerges as the most lethal.
What becomes clear is that these men are fueled by the politics of resentment. Traditional Tory power has waned, and their once-automatic inheritance of key power positions within the class-ridden British establishment is under threat.
It ought to be irritating to watch the privileged class at increasingly repellent play. Yet Wade uses acute observation to weave comedy out of the characters’ untrammeled arrogance. This makes their horrifying hijinks engaging, not least because of their rarely seen absurdity.
Yet despite this guilty pleasure, the play is problematic.
Almost all the play is taken up with the dinner, which unfolds in stretches of real-time. But not all of it convinces. Where, for example, are the drugs? Why, when James quickly downs an entire bottle of wine, is his behavior so unaffected?
More crucially, twin scenes of set-up and pay-off book-ending the action create serious problems.
Firstly, they collapse the structure. In effect, Wade announces her intentions, then carries them out, then tells the audience what she means by it all.
Secondly, in the expository opening scene, too much information is provided about the club’s need to live up to its scandalous past. Predictability being the enemy of drama, Wade hereby robs her play of tension, at least until the Riot Club’s final act that lurches into the territory of Donna Tart’s “The Secret History.” That, in turn, gives rise to an unconvincing conspiratorial twist wherein privilege surmounts justice.
Given that Britain is in the midst of a general election campaign that’s likely to see ex-Bullingdon members David Cameron and George Osborne elected as Tory prime minister and chancellor of the exchequer, the timing couldn’t be better. That will guarantee “Posh” an enthusiastic London audience. Its contrivances, however, are unlikely to give it enduring life.