I’d love to know what Dominic Cavendish would think of this all-female version of Laura Wade’s Posh after his recent comments concerning the National Theatre's Twelfth Night starring Tamsin Greig.
Gender swapping roles is certainly in fashion at the moment, but with good reason. It’s something of a protest against the lack of female roles in theatre, but it’s also an experiment to see what extra this casting can bring to a text. In this instance, however, whether the female casting really adds something to the production or if it’s just following trends is up for debate.
Yes, the debate is about equality and opportunity. Yes, it’s about female actors being offered more substantial, typically ‘male’ roles. Yes, we may have a female Prime Minister (alongside other female political leaders), which is notable for such a political play. But I’m not sure if having women in the roles necessarily heightens the production in any meaningful way, beyond the initial shock factor of women acting in such a masculine (and disgraceful) manner.
Wade’s play centres on the male-only ‘Riot Club’ at Oxford University, a fictionalised version of the Bullingdon Club of which many of our recent political leaders have been members. They’re hosting one of their infamous dinners at a country pub, full of strange rituals, misogynist behaviour, and upper class pomposity at the expense of the working class (no pig heads were harmed here). Yet the play is an exploration of masculinity as much as it is white elitism and privilege. Here, the characters retain their male names and pronouns, but with women in the roles it feels too performative, a farcical parody of hyper-masculinity.
Perhaps this is the point – having women in these roles makes a mockery of masculinity. It certainly adds plentiful humour to the play. But it also lacks believability. If played straight, we would laugh at the absurdity of the situation yet be shocked at its potential realism. Here, the caricature performances are often played for laughs as we look down on these boys (they can hardly be considered men), but the play therefore lacks some bite and edge as a result. This is an alternate reality, not a bristling fictional recreation of our political climate.
One performance does stick out though: Serena Jennings as Alistair Ryle. She successfully finds a balance between mockery and believability, with a grounded performance that blurs the line between masculine and feminine. Spitting out soliloquies deriding “fucking poor people”, she is quite frankly terrifying. As the naïve Ed Montgomery, Verity Kirk offers a perfect comedic foil.
Elsewhere, the production has all the pros and cons of the original text: a cutting satire with a clever premise and often disturbing script, but a second half that moves too far into the fantastical with its ghostly apparition and cultish ending. Sara Perks’ revolving set spins us further and further into absurdity, whilst the music choices juxtapose classical grandeur with punk (Cherry Bomb by The Runaways is a particularly inspired choice). The use of slow motion and strobe lighting also ensure director Cressida Carré's production is a polished and stylish affair.
It’s debatable, then, whether Posh really transcends gender, but this production is certainly a thought-provoking and nonetheless enjoyable performance. It’s relevance is undeniable, if more for its views on women in theatre than for its politics.
Watch: Posh runs at the Pleasance Theatre London until 22nd April.
Images: Darren Bell