For a play performed on a badminton court, this production boasts some serious firepower. Conceived in the fertile theatrical breeding-grounds of St Catz, The Graduate brings a cast of established actors and outstanding debutantes to one of the most artfully awkward scripts in cinema. Add a live soundtrack from Oxford indie band Spring Offensive and a publicity campaign managed by media juggernaut Marta Szczerba, and you have a potent mixture on your hands. A mixture that might just blow up in your face.
Luckily, most of the explosive force is directed at the audience. Directors David Ralf and Holly Harris have borrowed extensively from the 1967 film, and as a result this play brings much of the tension of the original to the stage. The script may have been ‘silently modernised,’ as the directors put it, but the plot and the feel are still very much of the sixties.
Benjamin is an immaculately accomplished student who returns home for the summer after graduating. He finds himself catatonic with boredom. Surrounded by braying models of the American Dream – ‘let me say just one word to you, Ben my boy… plastics’ – he struggles against his own all-American heroism and rebels without purpose, without energy, and without direction.
He is easy meat for Mrs Robinson, the lithe cougar wife of a friend of his father’s, and the two embark on what might just be the most infamously graceless affair in cinematic history. ‘You are the most attractive of all my parents’ friends. You are more than adequately desirable,’ etc. Things get more complicated. Benjamin is compelled to date Mrs Robinson’s daughter Elaine, and in spite of a false start in a strip joint they hit it off. Cue the inevitable round of discoveries, and then a wildly unpredictable race across America.
This production delights in subverting your expectations. Ralf has mastered the art of making it very clear that a cringe moment is approaching, and then delaying and delaying it until you’ve ground away what little remains of your tooth enamel. Benjamin is played with a wild charisma by Jeremy Neumark Jones, who adds an assertiveness that was missing in the film.
Opposite him, Erica Conway shines on her Oxford debut as a very British Mrs Robinson, in spite of the comedy Californian twang. Understated and distrait, she manages to give the impression that she is completely in control although her mind might be temporarily absent somewhere out beyond the asteroid belt. She doesn’t quite own the space as much as she might, but her character is both inscrutable and utterly convincing.
The rest of the cast are drawn in bold stereotypes. Felix Legge plays Mrs Robinson’s avuncular husband to a tee, while Rebecca Adams makes her Elaine even more girlish than the Elaine of the film. There are no real weak links here. The production puts its limited space to good use, although it is more than a little disconcerting to see the inactive actors flopping vacantly against the walls like discarded puppets. Dare I say this feels pointless?
But while you can fight this play’s charm – and plenty will – you won’t win. Just lie back and let this slick production seduce you. Enjoy the ride.