FringeReview UK 2018
In Ann Atkins’ direction of The Graduate for BLT, some things from the film are kept as well: the miraculous sound track of Simon and Garfunkel that’s part of Steve Adams’ sound, lighting and set design, operated by Mimi Goddard. Glenys Stuart’s period costumes are unobtrusively excellent.
So most of us know Charles Webb’s The Graduate through the 1967 film classic, and this adaptation by Terry Johnson – of Insignificance and recently Ken fame – pays homage to both.
But it adds something too. And in Ann Atkins’ direction for BLT some things from the film are kept as well: the miraculous sound track of Simon and Garfunkel that’s part of Steve Adams’ sound, lighting and set design, operated by Mimi Goddard.
It must be said at once how first rate this production is, from design and production values, to the acting – with flawless accents including one native one slotted deftly with the rest; some achievement. Johnson’s script too delivers differences, not culled out from Webb’s novel which the film adheres to pretty faithfully (dialogue was lifted wholesale; Webb got very little). There’s an extended final confrontation, more theatrically argued, and an epilogue. So prepare for surprises: they’re worth it. And there are brave surprises here, things I’ve not seen on any amateur stage, not that the BLT gives anything but professionalism.
We’re beguiled with a tangerine dream of a set (painted by Tom Williams) doing duty first as awkward graduate Benjamin Braddock’s bedroom, then Taft Hotel lobby and Room 515, (black satin sheets), a red-lit downtown bar with grungy walls and even grungier personnel, the Robinsons’ front room, the Braddocks’ lawn. It’s a spiral of props and good stage management as with the same basic scheme we’re treated to an attic bedsit in Berkeley, a brief nod to a psychiatrist’s office (and quick exit by the enraged subject); finally a church with a green, red, blue and yellow rose window projection. Windows are all projections this time. Glenys Stuart’s period costumes are unobtrusively excellent.
And we start there in a way. Ben Braddock’s in a swimsuit and snorkel as we meet him in Matthew Wynn Davies’ gawkily superb representation of a first-class graduate without a cause, swooned over by his parents, who won’t come down to his own party: it’s full of their friends. He’s meant to be showing off his snorkling suit, a birthday present.
Peter Ingledew makes a fine father more liberal than you’d expect, out of his depth but sympathetic, even to his son’s alter adventures told with advantages about whores in a field. Patti Griffiths’ Mrs Braddock has a role restricted to an emotional gilt-edge at the extremes of familial anxiety, and manages the poise of ‘what-did-I-do-wrong? with a deftly crushed doormat of a performance.
Mike Skinner’s Mr Robinson with his one-word ‘plastics’ forever glue to his lips, endures a more painful awakening. The arc of affection towards Ben, hoping like the Bradshaws that Ben might marry his daughter Elaine hasn’t reckoned on what his wife might plan. Skinner traces a very different rising of bewilderment, rage and loathing, reddening and almost visibly swelling as the play proceeds.
It’s alcoholic Mrs Robinson herself, whose own name is never stripped to us as she is, who turns everything on its, well head. American Bridgett Ane Lawrence like several makes her debut on the BLT stage. Entering Ben’s bedroom ostensibly to lie down, she purrs and rasps her way into Ben’s embarrassment. Her mix of cajoling and canoodling is electrifying, as is what she does next to his immortal ‘you’re by far the most attractive of all my parents’ friends.’
Ben heads for the hills literally in a self-discovery trip whose veracity is tested the minute he gets back, having told his supportive father (who wants to believe he’s roughed it in every way). Mrs Robinson however knows by his behaviour that this is his first time, in that hotel room… The edgy ballet between Davies and Lawrence is sheerly accomplished in what could so easily prove awkward in the wrong way; it’s still fresh and funny too.
Part of the appeal of the film and here perhaps is wondering why these two might not have enjoyed each other more. Lawrence pushes both desperation and a hint of self-loathing with her sexuality, and deep frustration. That’s been four or five years she says, though she may have had lovers, seeing how fluently she dispose of hotel bookings, Thaisa Money’s first role as a parody of the ever-obliging, ever-knowing Clerk. But Johnson’s Mrs Robinson too is more layered. There’s nuance to her nihilism.
Dynamics between Ben and Mrs Robinson nevertheless play out between her quiet contempt for his lack of ambition, and he for hers, all devolving on art, which she declares she hates: for a reason as we find out.
But naturally it’s Mrs Robinson’s fiat on Ben taking out daughter Elaine, which the other three parents have engineered, that breaks them up. Lucy Knight determinedly makes an earnest, personally appealing but distinctly un-slinky girly-swot type, wholly without her mother’s banked fires of sexuality, and capacity – as yet – for bitter self-knowledge.
She’s serious too as Mrs Robinson points out, earnest, with none of her mother’s incipient nihilism. The despair of a pregnancy-forced marriage to a man she didn’t love, something she can never share with the obedient daughter who was the cause of all this. Yet Mrs Robinson’s far from wanting to see herself as she could have been in Elaine.
Knight makes her preppy, differently gauche to Ben: his contrariness leads them to a downtown bar where Dug Godfrey sluices himself in and out ogling the talent and Money’s bartender looks bored. It’s a richly comic scene, where Mandy-Jane Jackson’s stripper comes on and after Elaine nearly leaves allows another immortal line: ‘I love your breasts’ – Elaine’s consolation gift to compensate having been offended earlier. Johnson sees to it they’re both getting educated through the stripper.
Davies’ character appears in every scene thus far; he’s given a rest after the triangular confrontation scene with mother and daughter. Again it’s Knight’s character who seems to be getting educated: after Ben’s left she now pours herself a drink when she never drank before. There’s a touching intimacy in stark contrast to what’s revealed in the climactic church scene.
There’s an outfall of bewilderment and rage of course, with the elders all exploding predictably, Ingledew and Griffiths deeming there’s something wrong (hence Money’s psychiatrist role) and Skinner something loathsome: his wife’s painted Ben as a virtual rapist.
So Knight’s Elaine is cajoled into engagement (an arranged marriage almost) with offstage Carl the medical student. Yet Elaine can’t shake off virtually-stalking Ben, leading to the scene we think we all know so well.
Again Johnson’s additional material develops a crucial interplay of mother and daughter, with choices for both. Webb’s novella written at twenty-four proves fine for 1960s scriptwriters. We need more now, and Johnson provides it.
There’s far more here, a revelation of deeper motives and an answer to how a couple who’ve never even kissed properly will negotiate their first moments properly alone in a Nevada hotel.
Atkins keeps the pace up where this particular story might have eddied. With first-rate acting throughout and high production values, there’s so many reasons to see this production – including the nuanced ending. It’s worth hanging around for returns.