Rodney Clark's brief play (it runs 1 1/4 hrs) explores the well-trodden ground of the underbelly of the intellectual establishment, exposing unuttered passions, and issues of amorality and hypocrisy simmering below the surface. Tom Stoppard, Edward Albee and Christopher Hampton, amongst others, have covered these themes over the decades.
Sir Edgar Naseby (played by Timothy West) occupies the Chair in "social philosophy" at some unnamed dreaming spires university. Widowed, but having a penchant for young female students, he's got himself into something of a tangle. His malicious lover has submitted a thesis (which "will simply not do"), for her degree. If he fails her, she will allege harassment. Oh, and he also drinks (now there's a surprise!).
Naseby's dowdy, loyal and long suffering head of department, Dr Hanson (Prunella Scales) seeks to rescue him by imploring the young and inexperienced external examiner from an ex-poly (Jake Broder) to pass the thesis and prevent a brilliant intellectual from being exposed. This presents the examiner with a moral dilemma, which is not helped by large chips on both shoulders. As a student, he was refused admission to Naseby's college. Also he has yet to publish. To queer the pitch even further, Naseby has been asked to review his submission for publication, which will certainly crank up the examiner's career.
By the time raw nerves have been exposed, the young upstart has changed his mind more often than the Cabinet. Black and white segues into grey and principle becomes pragmatism, acceptance and understanding.
Whilst Clarke doesn't have the linguistic inventiveness of Stoppard, or the ear of Albee, he is able to construct dialogue which is amusing, sharp and to the point. Scales has the best lines, and although West's character says little, his character looms large over the stage, rather like Brando's Godfather. Frankly, Clarke is very fortunate to have retained the services of two such experienced actors. They lift the play from the mire of the commonplace, into which so many new plays now regrettably fall.
Broder demonstrates much enthusiasm but is rather less convincing. He has most to say, but much of it does not appear to make much sense. Ordinarily, and with a more experienced actor, this wouldn't necessarily matter, but Broder hasn't yet attained that confidence or stage ease. It will surely come, and perhaps it is rather unfair to pit him against two such consummate performers. He should also have been able to rely on tighter direction (by Ezra Hjalmarsson), which at best is competent and at worst haphazard and static. The all-white set (by Niki Turner) is stylish without being obtrusive.
Niggles apart, this reviewer enjoyed the play. Clark is clearly a talented writer, and he has the virtue of brevity and knowing when to bring the curtain down.
- Stephen Gilchrist