Brighton Fringe 2013
‘ Little boxes on the hillside / Little boxes all the same. / There’s a pink one and a green one / and a blue one and a yellow one / and they’re all made out of ticky-tacky / and they all look just the same.’
Remember ‘Little Boxes’, Malvina Reynolds’ song about American middle-class conformity, made famous in 1963 by Pete Seeger? It goes on –
‘ And the people in the houses / all went to the University / where they were put in boxes / and they all came out the same. / There’s doctors and lawyers / and business executives / and they’re all made out of ticky-tacky / and they all look just the same.’
Benjamin Braddock is a graduate – The Graduate – just returned home after university, and his parents have thrown a party in his honour and invited their middle-class friends and his father’s business associates. We met them first in the foyer of The Clarendon Centre, and were invited to have a drink and dance with the other guests. Then everyone was ushered upstairs to the main space on the first floor, where we the audience took our seats and the party continued on the stage.
I was reminded of the song when I saw that director Rikki Tarascas had dressed all the party guests in ‘Little Boxes’ colours – there were dresses in pale blue and pink, and jackets and slacks in yellow and green. The party guests had rather stylised movements, too, with facial expressions that were over-the-top and body language to match, and the overall effect made them seem cartoon-like. We’d already had a taste of this downstairs, where there were video screens running old Hanna-Barbera cartoon clips and TV ads from the sixties.
Thomas Malyon’s set design reinforced the two-dimensional feeling. The Braddock house was furnished with chairs, tables and sofas, but the rooms themselves – walls and doors – were just defined by white lines on the floor, like an architect’s plan drawing of a building. This cartoon unreality gave the set an unnatural, plastic feel (‘all made out of ticky-tacky’) and the middle-class lawyers and businessmen represented the corporate future that awaited the newly-graduated Benjamin. One of his father’s associates put his arm round Benjamin and offered him fatherly advice – "I have one word for you … Plastics. There’s a great future in plastics – think about it."
These cartoon stereotypes of people were designed to be ridiculous, absurd. Benjamin doesn’t want to be part of this world, but in fact he doesn’t know what he wants to become, and when he won’t join the party and he exclaims to his father – "They’re grotesque, Dad. I’m grotesque, we’re all grotesque." – we can see exactly what he means…
So Benjamin doesn’t have any agenda. But then we notice someone walking through the party guests. Blonde, drink in hand, dressed in a simple black dress which immediately sets her apart from the others. It’s Mrs Robinson, wife of Mr Braddock’s friend and business associate, and she most certainly DOES have an agenda. Sandie Armstrong plays her downbeat at first, but as she goes upstairs to Benjamin’s bedroom and attempts to seduce him, Mrs Robinson’s manipulative nature becomes apparent. You know what they say about playing with fire – Sandie Armstrong can do predatory, and her performance smouldered, always threatening to burst into open flame.
Miles Mlambo gave us the gauche awkwardness of the virgin Benjamin, jumping back and forth like a cat on hot coals as he tried to book a hotel room for his tryst with Mrs Robinson, or later, when attempting to undress her. His performance was funny, but I didn’t get a real sense of the anomie that the graduate felt about society’s ‘little boxes’.
You all know the story, of course. Charles Webb wrote the book in 1963, Mike Nichols made it into an iconic film in 1967, and Terry Johnson drew on both the book and the film to write this stage adaption in 2000. Benjamin has a secret affair with Mrs Robinson, while his parents fret about his lack of plans and push him into a date with her daughter Elaine. Of course, Benjamin falls in love with Elaine (it’s a rom-com), and the recriminations begin …
I should tell you more about Elaine. When we first see her she’s dressed in a pink jacket and speaking in a mummy’s-little-girl voice, and she seems to be one of the plastic cartoon figures that Benjamin is so revolted by. He’s determined to wreck the evening, so he takes her to a seedy strip-joint, full of low-lifes and loud music. There’s a burlesque dancer whose behaviour reduces Elaine to tears (a great performance from Honour Mission – she played this with silver lurex and nipple tassles, and she also played Benjamin’s mother, in an enormous beehive hairdo), and Elaine’s distress changes Benjamin’s view of her, and ignites his love.
Tegen Hitchens gave us a wonderful portrayal of Elaine’s transformation, as she revealed the social conscience beneath the preppy, middle-class exterior. Benjamin considers that his life -"is bullshit", and that he knows it’s bullshit – "Because I’ve had a very good education". He doesn’t want to be put into one of the ‘little boxes’, but Elaine can see the bigger picture – "Then be grateful – there are people FIGHTING in Alabama – fighting State Troopers for a good education. Do you think THEY think life is bullshit?". Hitchens brought out the steel in Elaine’s character, as well as the idealism of nineteen sixties’ social and political activism.
Later on, when the facts of the affair were revealed, Armstrong and Hitchens played an unforgettable scene where Mrs Robinson and her daughter deal with the situation by getting completely drunk together. Difficult to act convincingly ‘stewed’, but these two brought it off. (Elaine almost brought it up, too, a couple of times…)
Tanglehead Productions are known for their site-specific work, making use of venues that are not primarily designed for theatre, and it was here that I thought that the production was misconceived. The upstairs space at The Clarendon Centre was simply too big. I’ve mentioned the architect-plan set already, with the rooms drawn out on the floor – now visualise that inside a space bigger than a tennis court. The acting area was dwarfed by the unused empty space around it. Worse, the set was stretched out, two living rooms wide and with the bedroom on a raised section at the rear, so that the actors had a lot of walking to do just to get to where they were needed. This staging spread out the action so much that the intensity was diminished.
There were sixties TV ads running on two screens at the back, showing the glories of consumerism and the American Way of Life , and it occurred to me that this was also the era when America was developing and testing atomic bombs. To get a nuclear explosion, you have to squeeze enough plutonium into a small enough volume to achieve a ‘critical mass’. If you don’t achieve critical mass, if the material is too spread out, you don’t get a fission chain reaction and an explosion, just a damp squib. I felt that that was the case here – there was lots going on, but there wasn’t that tight focus of attention that makes for really gripping theatre.
( I’ll bet that’s the first time anyone’s put a lecture on nuclear weapons design onto a fringe theatre website…)
Another staging problem – putting the bedroom at the rear of the acting area meant that the actors in that location were always a long way off. It felt like we were seeing them on a small TV set from the early sixties. I liked the backlit screens, where we saw the sex scenes in silhouette – black shadows against torrid crimson light – but when these same screens had to be physically moved around to produce different locations it felt… clumsy. There was some beautiful continuity music from Rotait – two musicians on guitar, drums, cello and vocals – though a number of us found Jareth Tait’s guitar interludes overlong. Perhaps they had to be, though, giving the actors time to get themselves to where they needed to be within the enormous space.
The Graduate deserves three and a half stars, really. It makes that fourth star on the strength of stunning performances from Tegen Hitchens as Elaine and Sandie Armstrong as Mrs Robinson. So here’s to you, Mrs Robinson.