All the young stags

What does Laura Wade's new play tell us about David Cameron and his friends?

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If David Cameron is the devil we don't know, does Laura Wade's Posh, which opened last week at the Royal Court Theatre, help us to further our acquaintance? Well, maybe.

Does Posh work as a piece of theatre? Well, yes. The imagined antics of an Oxford all-male dining society, not a million hints away from Cameron's Bullingdon Club, provide a slow-moving, brightly coloured target, and rich pickings for the playwright. Wade's stretching of the point, with the badly behaved, room-trashing rich boys graduating to actual GBH; and the sinister Tory recruitment process at work, top-and-tailing the show, make for a great dramatic narrative, whatever the dubious likelihood in reality.

After a clever Hogwarts moment in which the bewigged grandees in an oil painting apparently float off, the events play out centripetally round the dining table of an Oxfordshire gastro-pub, complete with Farrow and Ball wannabe country house décor. Here the ten members of the Riot Club don their formal fancy dress for their termly champagne quaffing and roast beast consumption.

Director Lindsey Turner punctuates this inevitably static set-up when the cast break free from both table and character to sing grime and "nu-disco" numbers a cappella: a wonderfully striking mash up of old school and contemporary, neatly drawing attention to the incongruity which is the defining characteristic of "young fogies". Less successful as an intervention is Lord Riot's "death's head at the feast" appearance, as he bodyjacks one of the comatose members and delivers his dire call to the landed scions that they reclaim their birthright.

The puerile pups themselves are beautifully realised. Caricatures they may be, but they are drawn with near-fondness, and played with relish by the cast, who are almost pitch-perfect. There are some heavy Brideshead touches -- one of the chaps even has a teddy bear -- and the brilliantined Hugo Fraser-Tyrwhitt (all puns intended) appears to have stepped intact out of Bertie Wooster's 1930's. David Dawson plays him with a fastidious, eye-flickering vigilance. Joshua McGuire, as Guy Bellingfield, is clearly one to watch: short, chippy, and with a brittle smile that fractures to a grimace when unobserved. Richard Goulding's Balfour capers and canters about the stage like a pissed-up princeling.

They all eye each other beadily as they jockey for position, and the beadiest of all the beady-eyed is the Godfather figure Jeremy, who uses the Riot Club as a training ground for future Tory politicians, and singles out the most obnoxious, compromised, divergent thinker of the lot as his protegé.

They are also gifted with sharp dialogue that is at times painfully funny. "How do you make an Eton mess? Tell him he's only got into Bristol." The jokiness and wit of the banter can be seductive, but underneath it all lurks a chilling arrogance. Superficially charming, these characters have a faux-politesse that evaporates disturbingly when they don't get their own way. There are some subtle points made here about the donning of chummy charm which can be shrugged off like an overcoat, and that enables such monsters to walk among us. I particularly liked Wade's use of the word 'mate' that the club members sport like a little tic, the linguistic equivalent of slumming it.

Nowhere does this arrogance manifest itself more than when the charm is abraded by contact with uncooperative outsiders. The only women in the piece, tellingly, are a waitress and a prostitute, and each coolly challenges the club's fiat. The pub landlord's frank astonishment at their foolery (beautifully underplayed by Daniel Ryan) both grounds the show and leads to his albeit implausible beating at their hands.

Even looking at all these young stags on stage is intimidating, and one is oddly grateful for the protection of the "fourth wall". What they amply demonstrate is not so much that the Riot Club and its ilk still guarantee access to the highest circles, but that hand in hand with privilege comes the innate and pernicious belief that its members are better than all the "lilac-coloured people". This belief, according to the young protegé, could even withstand a new, meritocratic era.

And here is where the show lands its punch: its suggestion that those in the Party formerly known as Nasty have merely tucked their tails out of sight. For now.

"Posh" runs until 22 May.

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