Gentlemen at the Arcola Theatre – review

Matt Parvin’s play opens a few years after being derailed by lockdowns

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Gentlemen, © Alex Brenner

Where else to stage a nasty, personal war over male bisexuality than one of the longstanding historic centres for its practice? In a room in some unnamed Oxbridge college, an earnest but ineffectual Welfare Officer’s nicely laid-out biscuits and squash go sadly ignored. There’s blood to be spilled.

Greg (Charlie Beck) is accused by Kasper (Issam Al Ghussain) of plagiarism. Water off a duck’s back. But the allegations keep coming: of weird comments, bullying, then something worse. A culture war is ignited, and Greg’s fate becomes inextricable from that of the university, or that of a certain breed of ignorant, bullying heterosexual man.

While Kasper at first simmers without getting a word in against Greg’s laddish, slick ebullience, writer Matt Parvin’s script is unmistakable in showing us the similarities between these two insecure first-years – grimly desperate to make both themselves anew and an impression on their peers. It’s a battle meant to feel big: accordingly, the characters reveal themselves as more supervillian than subtle, while nice PhD student Timby (Edward Judge) in the welfare role is the weapon and the meat over which they growl.

Gentlemen’s writing is consciously theatrical, often in the first half dipping into rapidfire “Who’s on First?” exchanges, but keeps to the subject at hand rather than the subjects Kasper and Greg study (History and English), despite the dark academia stylings. Each of the three actors get ample moments to command the audience’s attention, though only one of several speeches is explicitly identified as a speech by another character: a blistering sermon of revenge from Kasper which recalls Zoe Leonard’s poem “I Want a Dyke for President”.

Amongst the bombast there are moments of quiet incision about abuse of power and male heterosexuality, but mostly Parvin’s writing feels emphatic and very neat, shutting out more complicated mess. There’s no clear, genuine moral question for us here: ruining working class Greg’s prospects is positioned as a straightforward example of the means unjustified by the ends, despite a fleeting late reference to things getting “worse” out there for queer people. How Kasper’s own class background informs his actions and attitude remains a blank. The characters and their circumstances are slightly occluded by how largely and loudly the quite simple drama between them is played out.

Director Richard Speir mounts this production three years after it was initially intended for the Arcola, this time taking on producing duties too, and makes naturalistic use of Cecilia Truno’s cosy academic office set. The three actors bide their time eyeing each other like beasts in a two-small pen, occasionally breaking out into well-choreographed violence (Joe Golby and Lucy Wordsworth).

Most welcome is a slightly surreal turn in the play which makes great use of Judge’s voice in another surprise role, and Will Alder’s versatile, sly lighting. It’s another demonstration of Parvin’s instinct for soft and sharper shifts and reversals in allegiances. Naturally, nobody wants to be whipping boy.