Who shot Professor Sanders, the Oxford don who gave such inspiring tutorials? Why did they do it? How did they cover it up and make it look like suicide? I don’t care who the murderer was, I don’t care how it was covered up and I definitely don’t care who Professor Sanders was. For the first fifteen minutes of the play, I was utterly bored. The play’s lead Esther, played by Philly Howarth, is an annoyingly inquisitive student, trying to dig into the murder mystery that is both uninspiring and dull. The first scene between Esther and Professor Whatmore (Nathan Jones) is long, unproductive and painfully stereotypical. Jokes fall flat, candid self-mocking puns on Oxford make the audience awkward; should I laugh or cringe at this?
It is not until we reach the cocktail party that we realise that this is ultimately a fantastic parody – using stereotypes and stock plot devices to an unbelievable extent. It knows this and exploits it, with witty lines from writer Robert Holtom mocking Oxford and the murder mystery genre and over the top characters that (sadly) we all recognise. Theo (Leo Suter) is a devastatingly typical Eton student, rich, charming but dim, Tamara (Alessandra Gage) is the classic pompous and self-loving Oxford undergrad, outraged at getting a 2.2 in an essay.
The Last Tutorial is most successful when it plays on these one-dimensional archetypal characters, laughing at their ridiculousness, with Esther’s pensive pacing as she attempts to solve a mystery, wanting to convince her reluctant companion that it wasn’t just a suicide. Yet unfortunately the writer oversteps the mark with retired Oxford professor Patty Gibbons (Harriet Easton), dragging on too much about her stereotypical character. The audience should be trusted to enjoy her outer preposterousness without it being forced down our throats in a way that eventually bores and irritates.
Yes the performances were not perfect, yes Philly Howarth fluffed her lines on multiple occasions, yes Leo Suter looked slightly uncomfortable on stage (this was his first major play in Oxford, I can forgive that), but this didn’t take away from what the play was trying to achieve. From the dreadfully clichéd music that filled each scene change to the reconstructions of the possible murders, the play poked fun at itself and most of the time it worked. Kudos must be given to director Matthew Shepherd for a great stage layout and scene changes. Perhaps the first fifteen minutes were there to throw the audience off, but I don’t think they were. Cut the boring beginning and you’re on to a winner.