From time to time a play comes along that ticks every box and gives a surprise treatment to a contemporary topic. Matt Parvin’s Gentlemen at the Arcola Theatre, does that and much more in a gripping drama whose storyline gathers in complexity as events unfold.
A masterclass in how to deliver stunningly captivating drama
Gentlemen was set to open in March 2020, days before lockdown. With the passage of time a new cast has been assembled, one of whom was in his first year at drama school three years ago. Huge credit here goes to Casting Director Nicholas Hockaday for assembling a trio of exceptionally skilled actors and Director Richard Speir for drawing on individual strengths to forge a chemistry between them that gives emotional depth to the production. As Speir’s says, “This cast might as well have been lab-grown for the show. With a wonderful blend of youth, experience and sharp wit, I couldn’t wish for better actors to bring Matt’s piece to life”.
The opening scenes have al the makings of a situation comedy. Greg (Charlie Beck) spent his school days deep in study. His reward for all that hard work and isolation was a place at one of England's top universities. Now he intends to milk the opportunity for all it’s worth in a hedonistic mix of societies, pubs, clubs and sex. After all, it is fresher’s term and he’s as fresh as they come. In contrast, his party-going popularity is the antithesis of everything that Kasper (Issam Al Ghussain) has experienced, not that he would want it. While Greg takes to the excesses of university life like a duck to water, Kaspar is the fish out of water. The pair are summoned to the room of the college welfare officer (Edward Judge), known as Timby, who needs to resolve a charge brought by a professor that Greg has plagiarised one of Kaspar’s essays. Greg, with his skilled use of words and personal logic, argues his way out of the accusation. But this is only the start of more serious allegations that eat into his Teflon veneer.
Kaspar remains silent during the mediation session; an intriguing device that makes us wonder why he is not participating and what’s going on in his head. Plenty, is the answer, but for now he is biding his time. If Greg is the focus of act one, dominating it with his endless bravado and antics, the balance of power shifts in act two with Kaspar revealing his mastery of the situation and ability to control the agenda. If only Greg had realised how Kaspar could turn and be so devastatingly menacing.
Caught in the middle is the well-meaning, all-things-to-all-people counsellor who has perfected the art of sitting on the fence to the point at which becomes painful. The bulk of the play is set in his office, designed with convincing attention to detail by Cecilia Trono. It’s spacious enough for some physical action but sufficiently compact to keep everyone in proximity with each other and heighten the intensity of their meetings. The long entrance to the stage is cleverly converted into a corridor that leads off from behind the door and although largely unseen has appropriate wall hangings. It’s subtly lit with light streaming in from a window and lamps giving tonal effects. In the surprise and contrasting opening to act two lighting designer Will Alder and sound designer Jamie Lu, whose outside protest noises work convincingly, have a chance for a little more excess in their creativity.
Judge captures the essence of the rather bumbling counsellor to perfection. His tone is cautious, verging on apologetic when he realise he’s said something that might, upset, offend or show lack of understanding. His delivery is often very soft, with some lines in the style of asides, under his breath as he goes out of his way to display his empathy. His softly-softly approach balances the forthright and vehemently outspoken delivery of Beck, who performs as more of a comedic master of the language, running rings round people. Ghussain falls between the two, cleverly setting up the initially compliant and submissive loner only later to take everyone by surprise as he weaves a web of sinister machinations. Delivery by all three is so powerful as to leave mouths aghast at how the manipulations of the situation unfold.
All of this stems form Parvin's finely crafted script and focussed use of language. With a Ph.D in English and years spent at Oxford and Cambridge Universities he’s clearly at home in the setting of his play and his observations of life there have clearly influenced this work. It’s a joy to relish the rich vocabulary, vivid imagery and precisely constructed sentences that elevate the dialogue and gives it heightened credibility in this academic setting, whilst appreciating the skill in creating dark comedy and an intriguing plot.
Class struggles, toxic cultures, the complexities of bisexual identity, how people become victims and why others are aggressors, how those roles can be reversed and the emotions that are generated are all laid bare in Gentlemen, often in the style of a detective investigation. Whatever the resolution of the specific situation between Greg and Caspar, the issues will remain long after, for them and for us all.
Gentlemen is a masterclass in how to deliver stunningly captivating drama.
NB: I am not in any way related to Charlie Beck!