The Graduate is becoming one of those West End shows whose commercial appeal is principally that they provide a vehicle for a succession of famous-name "scalps". The current exemplar of this angle is Art, which has made it such a marketing point that the actors no longer need to be household names ("Did you see Roger Allam in each of the three roles?"). The Graduate loses out on two fronts. Firstly, there is only one "vehicle" role, that of Mrs Robinson, unless some teenybop idol can be persuaded to put his or her wholesome image on the line by playing Benjamin Braddock or Elaine Robinson. Secondly, fond though I am of adaptor/director Terry Johnson, I can't see anything in this play to arouse the kind of devotion that makes punters return again and again. Once is enough, as I realised on my second viewing.
So following on the heels of Kathleen Turner's muted stage comeback and Jerry Hall trying to pass languid inability off as characterisation, we now have Amanda Donohoe in the costume of Mrs Robinson, and indeed out of it. I like Donohoe a lot as a stage actor – she turned in a surprisingly fine Miss Julie a few years ago – but this is the kind of role which almost lets her phone in her performance. We know that she is excellent at sardonic amusement and even more so at sardonic irritation; in this respect – indeed, in every salient respect except turning out to be a half-snake demon-worshipper – she is simply reprising her role as Lady Sylvia in Ken Russell's movie The Lair Of The White Worm, only with an American accent of some kind and an unsettling resemblance in formal wear to the late Duchess of Windsor (whom she has also played before, on stage in 1997).
Donohoe effortlessly knocks spots off her comrades. As Mrs Robinson's daughter Elaine, Coral Beed is strident where her predecessor in the role was ditsily formidable; Andrés Williams as Benjamin is the kind of whining adolescent whom no-one of any age could fall for (and altogether too Jewish-American in his vocal inflexions for such a paragon of WASPhood); and Stuart Milligan's performance as Mr Robinson deserves special mention for containing the kind of mugging usually only seen from minor players in The Phil Silvers Show. Part of the film version's appeal was the understatement of Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft in the main roles; Johnson's direction insists on everything being turned up. Don't get me wrong, it's not by any means a disaster, but without the big-name Mrs Robinson factor I fear it would long since have left and gone away, hey hey hey.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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