Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond
Opened 30 April, 1999

When is a scathing satirical indictment not a scathing satirical indictment? Answer: when the culture it is attempting to indict is so entrenched that it either does not notice it is being indicted or else licences said indictment with a few indulgent chuckles and a patronising pat on the head.

I am sorry. It has been an age since I wrote for a publication which imposed a kind of ideological checklist upon plays, but the single most relevant factor I can see about The Last Thrash, David Cregan's bilious prep-school staff farce, is that at the Orange Tree it is being performed to people who either think that its social aspects are entirely fictional or imagine that the object of Cregan's humour and scorn are people like their acquaintances, not themselves.

Thus, we are presented with the usual parade of bourgeois sociopaths, an updating of the staff-room in Launder and Gilliatt's film The Happiest Days Of Your Life: the libertine art mistress, the secretly torrid secretary, the Latin master who harbours crushes on boys, the middle-aged chap who uses school as a refuge from his nondescript marriage, the overgrown student with no real life, the outdated headmaster and his smooth, clever but ultimately hollow deputy. Corporal punishment, cricket bats, cannabis and copulation are bandied around as topics, and at some point virtually everyone somehow or other receives a wound to the head, but the real subject is class. The only pupil we see, when threatened with an expulsion which could ruin his prospects for big school, protests, "I want to go to Winchester like everyone else!" The headmaster replies, "Everyone else doesn't go to Winchester; that is the point of it." The real point, though, is that everyone does go to Winchester both in the world of Cregan's play and in the world in which it anticipates being performed everyone, at least, except those few who are not exactly bad sorts, but awkward to fit in. The audience pretend to themselves that both those excluded unfortunates and the equally unpleasant insiders are grossly unreal, palpably other, not in any sense a mirror to the spectators themselves, and thus the droll enormities onstage can be smilingly tolerated in a fashion which frustratingly emasculates the play.

Orange Tree artistic director Sam Walters, making his first stage appearance on his theatre's stage in seven years, aids this comfortable delusion by playing headmaster Herbert as that little bit too mobile of face, posture and gesture to be entirely realistic. Jeremy Crutchley as deputy head "Catfish" gives his usual eloquent but calculatedly twitchy performance, which was immensely impressive on first viewing but, due to the Orange Tree's policy of maintaining a repertory company, palls more than a little when seen (as I saw it) in its fourth play so far this year. Cregan so wants, beneath the play's mostly polished surface, to sear, scathe and coruscate, but by the very fact of its production in a suburban, comfortably middle-class fringe theatre whose audience do not realise that they might now and again actually be criticised, it is doomed to failure.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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