Worcester is currently commemorating 40 years since it became co-educational, and Simone Norowzian’s original play, Martlets was a charmingly playful way of celebrating it. Sunday night’s previews were ‘staged’ in Worcester Memorial Room, a temporary location. Upon our arrival, we were faced with a gaggle of chairs and props dotted around the admittedly imperfect performance space, and a small yet animated audience. Though we sat down tentatively on seats we hoped were not going to be used during the play, I didn’t feel as if our intrusion onto the performance space would have mattered. The marketing material for the play ‘cordially invite[s]’ us to a ‘Freshers’ event in Worcester college circa 1979’, and the more informal, intimate setting of the dress run enhanced audience presence and participation (every cloud!). Before the play even began, I was offered a drink, and given a (sadly empty) red solo cup, while William Ridd Foxton’s bumbling Richard interacted with his small yet appreciative audience.
The play opens in earnest in media res. The men sit before us, discussing the elusive female species about to enter their college, amusingly accompanied by Norowzian’s own character, a moustached-chauvinist. The arrival of the women is alien territory for all but Carlo QC’s pseudo-suave Jude, whose amusing misjudgements and faux-pas end up driving a plot that seems fairly thin otherwise. No doubt due to the fact that I was watching a dress rehearsal, the play rattled through conversation and events at rapid speeds. The length turned out to be shorter than the original, at only an hour, and some elements of the play were lost for it. Nevertheless, this odyssey through paradigms of these students’ Oxford experiences, including unfortunate sconces and missed OUCA meetings, had its amusing merits and promising moments. Well-scripted jokes were pulled off successfully by a group of competent actors, who each played convincing caricatures with palpable enthusiasm. Throughout the performance, selected members of the audience were taken to an alternative room where, I am told, a different scene continued; though somewhat hindered by the setting, this interactive style of comedy was an interesting way of creating a bespoke audience experience: something I certainly was not expecting.
Martlets demonstrates a great deal of potential, but was not done justice, I felt, by rapid line delivery and subject change. I had written in my notes during the performance: ‘there is so much going on!’, capitalised, and the play paradoxically seems to cover too much and too little at once. The conversation jolts suddenly from cocktails, to Ancient Greek Homosexuality, to parental expectation, and in a play so heavily focused on dialogue, I would like to have seen a more sustained focus on the clear wit in Norowizan’s writing.
In the context of 40 years of women at Worcester, I felt that the play could have benefited from greater commentary on this necessary step towards equality. Passing remarks are made about the novelty of female presence, but in some cases the caricature-ish presentation of the women, one of whom claims unconvincingly to be interested in ‘Shakespeare, current affairs and… the Sex Pistols’, seems to trivialise rather than celebrate. Nevertheless, the play was a perfect representation of the funny eccentricities of being a fresher, and its cheerful energy was infectious. Martlets is a play full of joy and sharp writing, all it needs is a bit of polishing.