A play about a group of high-spirited young men doing their A-levels. Lots of jokes, but the advent of tragedy and the eventual fracture of their relationships. So far, so History Boys.
Actually, that’s not a bad reference point, but for the first twenty minutes or so of Adam McNally’s play The Study of Young Men it feels closer to an episode of The Inbetweeners, albeit in a slightly cleaner incarnation. (Sample dialogue: ‘Someone’s shitting on that car!’) This is an impression that was enhanced for me by occasional echoes in Craig Nunes’ Charlie of both Simon Bird’s vocal delivery and his range of self-satisfied facial expressions. I can bestow no greater compliment.
Then the laughs become fewer and the suggestions of the tragic that have hovered around the extended opening scene become the focus, as the reasons for the estrangement of these four friends become apparent. The harshness of reality intrudes.
Or rather, it doesn’t, as almost everything is seen from within the imagination of Anthony. We are aware of this blurring of the boundaries between fantasy and reality from the very start of the play, when Anthony enters and sits down to write about the trauma he has undergone in the hope of some form of catharsis, but it isn’t until later that the figments of his imagination start to answer him back and to refuse to bend to his will. In a different context this tricksiness – and the preoccupation with adolescent angst at all – might have risked seeming self-indulgent, and that I didn’t feel such a concern as I watched the play was probably a result of the warm exposition scenes earlier on. Long before the bonds of friendship between the protagonists had loosened, I had grown to care about them. It’s nothing like Alan Bennett, really, but perhaps it’s not totally inappropriate to cite Bennett’s frequent undercutting of the comic with the poignant or desperate here.
If I haven’t really written about the performances of the cast, it’s because they are so uniformly excellent that no single one of them stands out, though Nkoko Sekete, whose image adorns the beautifully designed poster, commands the stage as Anthony, and the part of the innocent, rather prim Jonah might have been written for Robin Morton. I found the scenes between these two actors curiously touching.
Seeing a play like this one makes me conscious that I ought to go to more student theatre in Cambridge, and particularly plays written by students. For one thing, it’s quite plausible one may happen on a great playwright in his or her infancy, and for another, it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that such plays may only be performed once. We can all see A Midsummer Night’s Dream wherever and whenever we want, but I would hate to have missed this. It’s on every night until Saturday.
Cast: Nkoko Sekete (Anthony), Craig Nunes (Charlie), Robin Morton (Jonah), Tom Powell (Rob)
Director, Verity Trynka-Watson; Producer, Ella Jones; Assistant Producers, Patrick Sykes, Jed Pietersen and Julia Shelley; Publicity Design, Ned Quekett
Corpus Playroom, Saint Edwards Passage, Cambridge
25-29 January, 9.30pm
Tickets £6/£5 from Cambridge Arts Theatre