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Colloquium at Etcetera Theatre | Review

The collegiate nature of universities, where every academic paper, if it is to be taken seriously, should be ‘peer-reviewed’, makes for interesting power dynamics at the best of times. On one level, it’s not exactly difficult to explain what the play is about: the University of Oxford needs to make itself at least look like it’s a place where ‘anyone’ can apply to and study. ‘Management’, whoever they may be, have made their intentions clear, with Alfred Newman (Sean Bennett), the academic in charge of an English Literature degree course, tasked with doing their bidding. Bennett Burton (Truman Gaudoin), an academic colleague, likes their admissions interview methodology. But some of the questions fielded are not, in the view of the university authorities, directly related to whether a student is suited to the course, and therefore those questions need to be dispensed with.

ColloquiumThe term ‘widening participation’ isn’t, fortunately, or unfortunately, used in the play, although it’s clear through the student characters of Ben (Callum Chowdhury), from Eton College, and Alice (Alexandra Gallacher), from Wales, how background and privilege still plays its part in the university admissions process, and, although the production is not at pains to stress this, society at large. An example of this comes in the form of a standard question: why do you want to study English Literature? The answer supplied by both is the same, although the reaction is markedly different, and stretches beyond dismissiveness and into outright hostility towards Alice.

The show is long enough to justify its interval, and still manages to leave room for more by curtain call. Alfred’s retirement is looming, and while Bennett is waiting impatiently for what appears to be a promotion by default, Alfred has different plans for the future, some of which involve another faculty member, George (Benjamin Prudence). George, however, has personal issues going on, explored in a direct address to the audience, including a subplot (if you will) about how his academic work-life, and therefore his identity as a whole, is very far removed from that of the rest of his family in more ways than one.

Completing the set of on-stage characters is Anna (Hannah Eggleton), a part-time lecturer and researcher. Bennett’s offer of increased hours is immediately rebuffed due to childcare responsibilities, and her own monologue to the audience reveals personal frustrations but also wider concerns about how funding allocation decisions are made. Bennett, too, has reason to think that Oxford (and, perhaps, other universities) are becoming more profit-oriented than they ought to be, and while all organisations have bills that need to be paid, there’s a palpable fear that maximising revenue is becoming more of a priority than academic excellence. (There’s a line of argument that would, in theory, appeal to the bean counters – if academic standards go down, this impacts negatively on reputation, and therefore gifts, endowments and other streams of income. That, however, is another play for another time.)

Dramatic tension bubbles and simmers throughout, and it’s refreshing to witness a narrative that doesn’t have a highly critical incident that suddenly throws everything out of kilter. Here, there’s a lot going on in the first place. All of the cast are highly convincing in their roles. There are, technically, some stereotypes – Ben, with all his public schoolboy swagger, is confident enough to know he’ll be admitted to Oxford long before a formal notification. Some years ago I worked in the Registry at University College London, and the office politics of academic working life was very recognisable, although this show is accessible for anyone who hasn’t been immersed in that sort of environment. Suitably intellectual given its setting, it’s surprisingly fascinating, with various arguments and counter-arguments easy to follow.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Colloquium is a hilarious and moving new drama that satirises the exclusivity and absurdity of knowledge and tradition. Explore the lives of stuffy Professors, pompous candidates, and struggling students, all suffering under the regime of pressuring higher education.

Cast & Crew
Katherine Stockton – Writer and Producer
Molly Wilsher – Director
Sean Bennett – Assistant Producer & Alfred

Benjamin Prudence – George
Callum Choudhury – Ben
Alexandra Gallacher – Alice
Truman Gaudoin – Bennett
Hannah Eggleton – Anna

Sunday, 6 November 2022
8:00pm ‐ 9:30pm
Etcetera Theatre Club
265 Camden High Street, Above the Oxford Arms, London, NW1 7BU

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