Posh, Royal Court Downstairs, London
Hair, Gielgud, London
The Empire, Royal Court Upstairs, London

Laura Wade's superbly cast new play is darkly satirical, sharp – and funny – but ends with a whiff of demonising melodrama

The Royal Court is doing its darndest to sabotage the Conservatives' election campaign. That's what it looks like anyway, because Posh – Laura Wade's new main-house play – is a fictionalised group portrait of something not that far from the Bullingdon Club.

If anyone needs reminding, that's the dining club of super-rich and aristocratic Oxford University chaps whose longstanding custom it is to smash up local restaurants, and then escape trouble by throwing money at the gobsmacked staff. David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson are old Bullingdon boys.

In Lyndsey Turner's superbly cast ensemble production, nine young toffs and their feckless president, Tom Mison's James, descend on a gastro pub in the Oxfordshire countryside. They hire a private room – ox-blood red with antlers on the wall – and dress up in archaic tail-coated uniforms, as in those 1980s photographs of Cameron and co. Except this bunch call themselves the Riot Club and, since they're using an iPhone to check that a call girl is on her way, the setting must be now. Thus Wade keeps one step clear of a potentially libellous biodrama, while exploring the broader possibilities of a political and economic allegory.

Her point is partly plus ça change. In a darkly satirical vein, these arrogant twerps who regard top City and parliamentary posts as their birthright build up to their act of shameless vandalism, while preserving the Club's ludicrous traditions. They bray the National Anthem, make endless toasts to long-dead members, and no one is allowed to leave the room. Leaving the room is a club offence, so sick bags are provided.

What's hair-raising, as well as comical, is how coarsely bigoted these supposedly well-bred chaps are behind closed doors, slipping on the mask of abstemious decency whenever they have to placate the landlord, Daniel Ryan's burly Chris. There's a chilling trace of Patrick Hamilton's 1920s thriller Rope in these young gents' hidden brutality.

The tension mounts as they indulge in leadership in-fighting (a touch of New Labour there?) and as the masks begin to slip. This could all end in bloodshed. Leo Bill's drunken, vituperative Alistair rails against small businessmen – like this landlord – for wrecking the financial status quo, and his chums turn their attention to the waitress, the landlord's not entirely obliging daughter, Rachel (Fiona Button).

More intellectual brilliance would have been welcome. The political arguments are somewhat fuzzy even when Alistair is sober, and there is a whiff of demonising melodrama about the close, when he is conspiratorially recruited as future PM material. If there is a stand-out performance, it's David Dawson as the fey Hugo, with his feverish, glittering grin. However, everyone is superb: this is an array of young acting talent to rival that of The History Boys.

The hippy youths in Hair, transferring to the West End from Broadway in a buoyant revival, certainly wouldn't buy David Cameron's new proposal, that people's moral decency will really improve if you bribe them (three quid a week) to get married.

Unfortunately, everybody's so stoned in this vintage make-love-not-war rock musical (by Gerome Ragni, James Rado and composer Galt MacDermot) that they can hardly string a countercultural sentence together. There's a lot of mumbojumbo sung about the sign of Aquarius.

Yet this show isn't completely dumb. It spots the emotional fracture lines opening up in the naïve concept of free love, even while Diane Paulus's cast – a swarm of colourful scruffs – whirl and writhe in mimed orgies, all with charmingly humorous gusto (choreographed by Karole Armitage). The famous scene where everyone gets naked which made British theatre history in 1967 – the day after stage censorship ended – has lost all power to shock. It now seems sweetly innocent, over in a flash.

The characters' spirit of political protest, principally against fighting in Vietnam, naturally has more trenchant reverberations today. Gavin Creel's Claude, the shy guy who daren't burn his call-up papers, ends up laid out for a military funeral.

Producer Cameron Mackintosh has certainly scored a hit, importing the New York Public Theater's cast wholesale. Caissie Levy's Sheila and Sasha Allen's Dione resoundingly belt out the funky and frisky numbers "I Believe in Love" and "White Boys". Will Swenson is terrifically wolfish as the oversexed Berger, climbing into the stalls and teasingly ruffling anyone he fancies. And there's a lovely democratic party at the end when anyone who wants to can pile onstage and sing along to "Let the Sunshine In". A tiny white-haired granny was high-kicking with Berger as I left.

Back at the Royal Court, in the tiny Theatre Upstairs, The Empire transports you to the British Army's on-going struggles in Afghanistan. DC Moore's outstanding and superbly acted four-hander is set in a rubble-strewn military shack in the baking heat. Joe Armstrong's sweat-drenched Gary is a laddy, white corporal, initially joshing with a morosely taciturn, local soldier-boy (Josef Altin), whom he calls Paddy. Things take a far uglier turn, however, when Nav Sidhu's Zia is dragged in from a nearby battlefield, robed in a traditional kameez. He's obviously a member of the Taliban, only it turns out he's a motormouthed Eastender. He says he was just out here visiting family when he got kidnapped. Tempers are fraying dangerously under the stress of attack, delayed helicopters, lost lives and suppressed despair.

Moore has a fantastically sharp and humorous ear for military slang. This is combined with director Mike Bradwell's quietly superb naturalistic detailing, from distant birdsong and buzzing flies to long, exhausted silences. When Gary and Zia both lose their rag and the uppercrust captain, Rufus Wright's Simon, tries to regain control, what's even more extraordinary is that this chamber piece becomes a scorching and far-reaching exposé of how the British empire's lingering class system, two-way racial hatred, and decadent capitalism have created a ticking bomb.

'Posh' (020-7565 5000) to 22 May; 'Hair' (020-7907 7071) to 8 Jan 2011; 'The Empire' (020 7565 5000) to 1 May

Next Week:

Kate Bassett tests the veracity of The Real Thing, Tom Stoppard's tangle of love, life and acting, revived at the Old Vic

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones