A piece of new writing, set in Oxford University, based on the social lives of rich and arrogant students. From the start, the two characters are tossing off lines about Brideshead, Formal Hall and sixty pound pre-drinks. And just to make sure we know how clever the writer is, there’s a brief interlude of discussion about moral relativism. Five minutes in, and your reviewer is already settling in for another piece of abysmal Oxford drama created by some arts student who thinks they can write.
But bit by bit, it begins to grow on me. Somehow, the rounds of shallow conversation don’t quite become boring. The Oxford setting, the Brideshead characters chatting about cava and cocaine, are so outlandish, yet terrifyingly true to life, that they draw me in. Amber Husain and Frederick Bowerman, as Cordelia and Jack, have an easy chemistry that makes them a continual pleasure to watch. The conversation, despite the pretension and philosophising, is natural, believable, and entertaining. It turns out Robert Holtom, the author of Isobel, actually can write.
What’s more, there’s something else going on here – there is an undertone of darkness to the facile conversation, allusions at a lifestyle and attitude that suggests there may be more than meets the eye to this play. And indeed there is – I wouldn’t dare offer any spoilers, but safe to say the opening moments that made my heart sink are not indicative of the whole performance. Indeed, Holtom’s script neatly mocks the kind of student drama his work at first appears to be – the characters bitch about a director whose plays are nothing more than philosophy discussions starring her ‘besties’. It’s a subtle nod to the audience, a small meta reference that satirises student drama more effectively than anything more overblown could manage.
The performances of the small cast certainly aren’t perfect – a few moments that director Rachel Forster suggested were meant to elicit sympathy didn’t quite ring true, and became clunky moments best quickly forgotten. However, given I was seeing a second rehearsal, that is entirely forgivable.
In fact, the standard already achieved suggests that, come opening night, the three part cast will be simply incredible.
This is a piece of drama that defies initial impressions, in way that is almost inspired. So often new writing is a disgrace to the stage it’s performed on, and the BT is no stranger to bad plays. But Isobel punches above its weight, and is exactly what new writing should be – small and perfectly formed, grounded in a familiar setting with a dark undertone and a clever plot just sufficient to grip an audience for the required forty minutes. Highly recommended.