Matt Parvin’s new play is a sophisticated, nuanced drama about the denigration of minority attributes (in this case sexuality) and what duties society and its institutions should fulfill to protect us – sometimes from others, sometimes from ourselves.
Gentlemen is mostly set in the office of well-meaning Timby, a Welfare Officer and PhD student at an un-named university. Two students are called in to discuss an allegation of essay plagiarism.
Northern scholarship-boy Greg appears to have submitted a treatise on the significance of General Franco’s diet which closely resembles a paper submitted by fellow student Kasper. However, Greg mounts a staunch defence of the difference – indeed superiority – of his piece. It’s difficult to tell at this point how much of a cocky chancer Greg is: is he genuine, or attempting to use fine distinctions to game the system?
Later, the three characters gather again, this time over accusations that Greg has been bullying Kasper because of the latter’s bisexual orientation. Once more, Greg forthrightly denies wrongdoing and has an alternative explanation for every apparent transgression.
Charlie Beck plays Greg with obnoxious gusto. His character embodies the worst of white straight male privilege, smugly assuming his intelligence and wit will immunise him from any consequence of his actions. It’s a totally committed performance, and I actively despised Greg, even when the balance of power shifted from him.
Edward Judge’s Timby has the thankless task of attempting to mediate between Greg and his victim. He endeavours to provide some pastoral care, with a practiced line in pep talks about community and fitting in. It’s a highly skilled portrait of a good man trying to make a positive difference in the lives of others. As Kasper, Issam Al Ghussain is initially virtually silent, but comes sharply into his own in a thrilling pre-interval reveal.
My companion and I left the first half impressed and intrigued. We certainly didn’t predict we would resume post-interval in a dream sequence about General Franco. I’m not sure I got the meaning of this, but the stylistic shift made for a refreshing interlude.
Returning to the reality of Timby’s office, the last section concerns first Kasper then Greg attempting to influence Timby to side with them over the latest controversy. Greg finally acquires a degree of humility – but can he be trusted? Kasper, meanwhile, acquires an appetite for vengeance, expertly portrayed by Al Gussain with a chilling blend of righteousness and desperation.
The great strength of Parvin’s script is its multi-layered narrative that offers no easy answers. None of the characters is entirely good or bad – they’re all flawed humans teetering on the brink of messing up their lives; the template for quality drama since time immemorial.
Director Richard Speir doesn’t put a foot wrong, and mention must be made of Cecelia Truno’s lovely set design. I’ve never seen this space so elegantly and immersively dressed, from the wood tile-effect floor to the functional window and sloping walls.
But the crown of my praise must go to Edward Judge. Caught between the complex machinations of Greg and Kasper, Timby becomes the innocent victim of their conflicting egos, and Judge conveys his struggle to do the right thing by everyone at the cost of his own equilibrium with real deftness and sincerity. It’s an exceptionally fine and humane performance which still moves me to recall. I look forward to Judge’s next outing.
As I exited past Timby’s desk, I noticed a post-it note scrawled with the reminder “Phone Mum”. It struck a chord, I think as a symbol of how a production of real insight and resonance looks after the little things as well as the big.
Written by: Matt Parvin
Directed by: Richard Speir
Gentlemen plays at Arcola Theatre until 28 October. Further information and bookings can be found here.