Home » London Theatre Reviews » Gentlemen: a new play by Matt Parvin – Arcola Theatre | Review

Gentlemen: a new play by Matt Parvin – Arcola Theatre | Review

There has been some discussion of what some perceive to be ‘wokery’ – inverted commas entirely mine – in the education sector. I don’t know enough about university life these days to verify either way whether higher education institutions are really falling over themselves to pander to certain agendas. A welfare officer (Edward Judge) tries to be tactful and diplomatic in acting as mediator between Greg (Charlie Beck) and Kasper (Issam Al Ghussain) in what starts off as an apparently plagiarised essay but eventually blows up into something far bigger and far-reaching than anything any of the trio had envisaged.

Gentlemen - Arcola Theatre. Charlie Beck and Issam Al Ghussain. (c) Alex Brenner.
Gentlemen – Arcola Theatre. Charlie Beck and Issam Al Ghussain. (c) Alex Brenner.

As the old adage would have it, he who laughs last laughs best, although to the very end, it’s not clear how the storyline ends, and not just because the curtain falls on a cliffhanger. The officer, also a PhD student, toes the college’s line about a commitment to fostering a ‘community’ in which students and academics alike not only co-exist but belong, and so on – I had no idea which of the top-flight universities the play is set in but it certainly wasn’t a ‘commuter campus’ with little interaction between students outside lectures and seminars as they work part-time jobs alongside their studies and then head back to their family home each night. Here, Greg talks of attending several bars and nightclubs on the same night.

There are some laughs to be had in the sprawling dialogue, which goes off in all sorts of different directions (elements of the opening scene of the second half, frankly, went over my head). The discussions are suitably academic, though the script pulls back from being entirely about course and campus-related matters to provide the audience with sufficient backstory. The trio are almost implausibly different – for instance, the welfare officer is into cricket, Greg prefers football, and Kasper doesn’t actively follow any particular sport – but the distinctions, I will concede, make proceedings relatively easy to understand. There are some commonalities, however – the welfare officer, posh as he is, works for a living and mentions paid work as a positive, and Greg talks about how he grafted to get where he is, and understands he needs to carry on grafting in a highly competitive world.

The plot twists in this riveting production drew audible gasps from the audience at the performance I attended, so much so that you would be forgiven for thinking this was a well-designed murder mystery (spoiler alert: there are three living characters in the room in the first scene, and there are, albeit briefly for narrative purposes, the same three living characters in the same room in the final scene). Greg describes something as “super gay” in a derogatory fashion: this turns out to be tame behaviour by his standards – let’s just say the production has a fight director (Joe Golby) and an assistant fight director (Lucy Wordsworth) for a reason.

Almost inevitably in a fictional play, Kasper, who starts off barely getting a word in edgeways, eventually finds his voice. But he is also advised by the welfare officer to rein in his uncompromising determination to take a stand for both himself and other students who agree with him. Kasper reaches the point where he stops caring about his own reputation, and if he ends up proverbially shooting himself in the foot – well, he seems to agree with Michael Heseltine’s famous soundbite about the one who draws the sword never wearing the crown.

It’s not a perfect script: at one point, for instance, Kasper suddenly gives the welfare officer a lengthy monologue about his (Kasper’s) sexual identity, in a manner that didn’t quite seem authentic. For some time, there have been shows out there that have, rightly, promoted the idea that people should be free to be themselves and express their individuality. This isn’t a play that pushes back against such concepts, but rather it highlights some of the dangers and obstacles inherent in actively opposing toxic behaviours. Plenty of food for thought in this fascinating and multilayered production.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Gentlemen examines what happens when culture turns toxic, and how a fear of not fitting in risks everyone losing out.

Richard Speir presents in association with Arcola Theatre
Gentlemen
A new play by Matt Parvin
Directed by Richard Speir
4 October – 28 October 2023
https://www.arcolatheatre.com/

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