Latin! Or Tobacco and Boys: Four Stars Last Drinks: Three Stars
Polymath and renaissance man Stephen Fry wrote Latin! Or Tobacco and Boys for the Cambridge Footlights, it subsequently won a Fringe First at Edinburgh in 1980. This very funny short play, composed of a series of monologues and scenes, resonates sonorously with Fry’s unmistakable mien and wit.
We meet 26-year-old prep school teacher Dominic who struggles to drum Latin conjugations into little boys heads whilst all the time yearning to press something quite different into them. His indiscretion with one of his young charges is uncovered by Brookshaw a seedy senior master who proceeds to blackmail him but, this being Stephen Fry, it is not money he demands but regular thrashings! It is to Fry’s credit that he manages to make us laugh at and empathise with the shocking inclinations and illegal actions of the characters, although one is left with a slightly guilty feeling for doing so.
Matthew Burton is excellent as the unrepentant pederast Dominic and skilfully manipulates the audience as we become the trouser fiddling, nose picking, tousled haired boys. His nemesis Brookshaw is deftly played by Mark White who reminded me of several of my old teachers and I could almost smell the familiar fusty whiff of fags, fetid breath and failure.
This Good Night Out presentation, splendidly directed by Adam Spreadbury-Maher, is the latest in a series of excellent shows and confirms the Cock Tavern’s growing reputation for imaginative programming and quality productions.
Last Drinks by Australian writer Duncan Ley is second on our bill and is set ostensibly in an East End bar where a group of shabby men sit and sip drinks whilst discoursing elliptically on nothing or nothingness - or everything, or even the nothingness of everything. At one point they discuss the ever present wind howling outside the window:
“PORTOZ: Hang on. The wind won’t end though. The wind will keep going. It won’t end.
MEAD: The wind never ends.
DRAM: It’s eternal.
MEAD: It’s external.
DRAM: It’s ethereal.
MEAD: It’s existential.
DRAM: I always wanted to be existential. But my spelling let me down.”
This tongue in cheek pastiche of Absurdist debate is typical of the dialogue Ley stretches out to over an hour of looping banalities. When the original Absurdists like Beckett, Pinter and Albee challenged audiences with their bleak, obscure and existential plays theirs was a reaction to the very unchallenging well made plays of the day and they sought to examine the deeper psychological and philosophical nature of being, of perception and reality.
Although virtually nothing happens in Waiting For Godot it’s premiere famously caused a furore, so it must have communicated something powerful to its audience, even if that something or nothing was different for each of them. Ley’s play however breaks no new ground, and hovers between parody and pretension. Long pauses, eerie noises, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern style patter and the odd ironic existential gag are not enough to challenge a post-Absurdist audience.
Having said that director Nathan Godkin displays a confident hand and has drawn strong and engaging central performances from Peter James and Fanos Xenafos. The philosophical pill is sugared by very funny cameos from Mark White as Venus the barmaid and Matthew Burton as the deadpan Dram. Michael Grinter as Mead adds a sinister and surreal edge to the proceedings.