Originally scheduled to open just before the pandemic lockdown, Matt Parvin’s play about ‘woke’ culture at a university is still topical and dramatic subject matter. Irreconcilable positions seem depressingly current and can make for good dark comedy. But the gap caused by Covid has made the arguments here feel worn and, regrettably, the piece ends up predictable.
Laddish Greg is the obvious bully. Parvin spends time on the character’s working-class origins and as a result creates the most believable figure. Taking the role, Charlie Beck manages to convey that Greg is neither as clever or as funny as he thinks he is – a neat manoeuvre – while suggesting both his determination and vulnerability.
Trying, and failing, to handle Greg is the college welfare officer, played by Edward Judge. He’s an ineffective liberal it is too easy to mock, and there are too many jokes about him being close to the age of the students. It’s a great credit to Judge that he handles the weak humour so well and makes the character sympathetic.
The twist is that Greg’s victim, Casper, a bisexual student he is said to have assaulted, has a plan. Here Issam Al Ghussain goes from “waiting meekly” to downright scary and he does both well. In a move to strike fear into the hearts of Daily Mail readers, he declares war: “When I get triggered, I pull a trigger”. He complains to the college, organises protests and speaks to the press…all to prove a point.
Of course, some exaggeration is necessary. It might be bold to air common complaints about political correctness. Or show offensive tropes about bisexuality. Presumably the idea is to feed into fears in order to expose them. But when plot and prejudices are silly there isn’t much challenge to the audience. Unfortunately for Parvin, the ideas here don’t surprise anymore.
There are some clumsy stumbles, too. I don’t believe the boys would undress in front of the welfare officer (or be allowed to) – you can see the plot point too soon. The consideration of class is uneven – we need to know more about the other characters. And class would be a concern (however superficial); it’s tough to imagine Casper wouldn’t pepper sentences with the word intersectionality. In general, it’s hard to believe all three – whose intelligence is established – wouldn’t work out what was going on from the start.
On a positive note, careful performances do the actors credit. Richard Speir’s direction is confident and unrushed. And a scene after the interval, a dream sequence for Casper, is intriguing: here is the only suggestion that Casper is motivated by fear. Otherwise, Casper is just angry. And it is a great shame there is even the chance we can dismiss the character so simply.
Topicality is good and challenging views is admirable. And playwrights aren’t obliged to provide answers. But Gentlemen has too many silly fears and familiar tropes as targets to be effective, while it fails to raise its own, new, questions.
Until 28 October 2023