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Generation gap becomes a canyon: The Graduate

by on 26 October 2014

The Graduate

by Terry Johnson

Hampton Hill Playhouse


Review by Mark Aspen


The first line of Phillip Larkin’s famous (notorious?) poem, This Be the Verse (usually parodied as “They tuck you up, your mum and dad”) came to mind when watching OHADS’ recent production of The Graduate at Hampton Hill Playhouse. However, the play’s eponymous graduate, the naive and hapless Benjamin Braddock, has two sets of parents to contend with, for his dad’s friend is married to the predatory Mrs Robinson.

The Graduate is probably best known of course for Mike Nichols’ Oscar-winning 1967 film, starring Anne Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman.  Its source was a novel by Charles Webb written some four years earlier.  In 2000, British playwright Terry Johnson wrote the stage version, which although based on the original novel, makes more than a few nods towards the film.   However, OHADS’ production was not a slavish reproduction of the film.  Far from it: it offered a well-rounded and robust rendering of the story in its own right, nicely balancing comedy and thought-provoking drama.

The film was regarded as scandalous by the mores of the 1960s, but the play does put the audience in the position of voyeurs into a miasma of muddled emotions, slightly uncomfortable even in 2014. We see two people, equally lost: Benjamin with his post-adolescent self-consciousness, and Mrs Robinson, in the words of her own husband, a “lascivious alcoholic”.    There are dangers in playing with fire:  but this is fire right on their own doorstep and eventually consumes both families.

Patrick Oldham accurately portrayed the gauche Ben Braddock struggling to emerge from the shell of the awkward adolescent, but never quite managing to get a grip on the sophistication needed to cope with the advances of Mrs Robinson.  So when he is holed-up in a fit of teenager-ish truculence during a party in his honour, the arrival of a live-fuse seductress in his bedroom fills him with paroxysms of embarrassment.  But then, many a mature man may have found Mrs Robinson rather daunting.    As a voluptuous vamp with a low octave voice and high octane libido, Joolz Connery, in this iconic part, played the role with sympathy, just steering it the right side of caricature.

All the characters in this play take an emotional journey and the various journeys were well portrayed.   Ben’s journey is the most obvious, from the “cute but morose” boy (Elaine’s description), to the would-be roué, constantly digging holes for himself, to the man of action who snatches his bride from the altar of another man.

Ben’s parents’ journey takes them into a despairing self-blame, which tries to take refuge in the clinic of a totally ineffectual psychiatrist (played with dry humour by Tim Shaw).   Andy Smith, as Mr Braddock, skilfully depicted a father trying to do his best by his son, wheeling between connivance at his son’s “sowing of wild oats”, to anger at his concupiscence.   Mrs Braddock meanwhile tries to keep up with the incendiary affairs smouldering on her own doorstep.  With her unforced inhabiting of the character, Jane Marcus demonstrated once again that she is a consummate actress.

Harry Medawar is best known as a director, but as the stolid Mr Robinson, he gave a strong performance in his journey from the avuncular advisor, counselling Ben towards professional success with a simple prescription, “plastics!”, to the wronged cuckold barely controlling his anger.

Perhaps the most difficult emotional journey is that of Elaine Robinson, the daughter of the ill-fated family and the erstwhile love match for Ben in the eyes of Mr and Mrs Braddock. Elspeth Adam gave us an Elaine torn in all directions, which was particularly effective in Elaine’s tête-à-tête with her mother.  Elaine’s spirit also showed through in scenes such as when she calls Ben’s bluff when he takes her to a clip joint to repulse her.  Thwarted, Ben ironically describes her as “young enough to be my age”.  Indeed, in this play we see the generation gap yawning as wide as a Californian canyon.

California in 1967 was generally very affluent in comparison to Europe at the time, but this was not really apparent in the design, which seemed a little lacklustre for the homes, and hotels, of these two wealthy families (although Ben did seem to have a Jason Pollack in his room).   There were some nice late-sixties details such as beehive hairstyles, costumes of the period, and a Sparklets syphon.  (Can one still get the miniature gas cylinders?).

The set, realised by Wesley Henderson-Roe, was W-shaped suite of rooms, which could have been much more versatilely used. Action these rooms was largely confined to the corners of the W when it could have been taken out across the stage.  Director Sally Halsey may have felt confined by the lighting, which did concentrate in these areas, which is pity as her otherwise strong and fresh interpretation of the story could have been opened up more to the audience.

There were however some pleasing touches in Malcolm Maclenan’s lighting design, such as the flashing advert signs which reflected into the absconding youngster’s motel room, but generally overlapping shadows did give a lacy effect. John Pyle’s sound design included eclectic music which followed the changing moods of the action and encompassed pieces ranging from Albinoni to, naturally, Simon and Garfunkel’s songs that are now inextricably linked to The Graduate.

As a play, and to a lesser extent as a film, the writing of The Graduate does not flow smoothly.  There seems to be bits of plot missing.  These may be in the original novel (which I must admit I have not read), but in Terry Johnson’s stage version the action develops in sudden leaps.  Moreover, the back-story seems to be without foundation.  What was Ben like before he was, in his own words, “worried”?  Where does his amorphous anxiety about his parents’ vacuous materialism come from?

Whatever its cause, it is the crystallisation of this anxiety that opens wide that generation gap canyon into which two families tragically fall. Nevertheless, it makes for a gripping story and one well told by OHADS.

Mark Aspen

October 2014


From → Drama, Reviews

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