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Phil Willmott

Review: POSH at the Pleasance Theatre

Posh - Pleasance Theatre Posh was a breakthrough hit for playwright Laura Wade in 2010 when a general election put the spotlight on to the Bullington Club, an organisation for privileged Oxford students which counted the prime minister of the time, David Cameron and the anticipated next Prime minister, Boris Johnson as former members.

Wade fictionalised it as The Riot Club and set out to expose the excessive behaviour of the upperclass yobs said to be members. Club activities included drinking to excess, hiring prostitutes and smashing up premises and staff, with little regard to the consequences. Cameron and Johnson, keen to prove themselves in touch with ordinary people, distanced them selves from it and apparently it's now become obsolete as association with a clique that epitomised the traditional excess, violence and sexism of wealthy young men could seriously damage the career of any future politician. Despite his denial David Cameron was the subject of a scurrilous rumour claiming he sexually abused a pigs head during one night of Bullinngton high spirits. No wonder we were all so fascinated when Wade set out to put the hijinks on stage.

The production successfully transferred to the West End and then to the screen in 2013, retitled The Riot Club.

The action takes place over the course of an evening in 2010 when the club hire a private dining room from an unsuspecting publican. The audience is then invited to watch with morbid fascination as a night of vandalism, bullying and disrespect ensues, ultimately taking its toll on the psyche and career prospects of everyone involved.

The current vogue for gender blind casting has led to this latest revival where all the young men are played by young women. My first reaction was that this was merely gimmicky and perverse; I think I assumed the male characters would be made female which, as the play is an examination of upper-class machismo, would render it worthless.

But this isn't what happens. The actresses may make no attempt to disguise their gender visually, they're in tailored, heeled, feminised versions of the Bullington uniform, but the accomplished cast play the roles, as they were written, as men.

It's fascinating seeing male behaviour through the prism of female performance; you hear the text and view the attitudes afresh. It's also thrilling to see a stage full of brilliant women playing great roles, which brings home how seldom this happens.

There was a little grouching in the interval that the project wasn't creating meaty female roles merely borrowing them from male actors thus perpetuating the issue of a lack of writing for women. But if you don't overthink it, this production is a powerful, funny, gripping and poignant evening that also reinforces what a great play it is.

It's all directed with flair by Cressida Carre on a clever set by Sarah Perks which utilities a limited budget to make a striking statement about a Britain that's battered around the edges. She and costume co-designer Sarah Mills deserve a lot of credit for interpreting the female to male brief so skilfully.

The whole cast is terrific but I particularly admired Serena Jennings as the restless, destructive Alistair. Jennings is one those clever performers that can make you laugh at one moment then send a chill up your spine the next.

For me a great evening's theatre should be entertaining and thought provoking. This brave, inspired and unusual production succeeds triumphantly in both respects.