Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Posh, toffs and the class system

Almost everyone goes to university these days. We all eat hummus and have sun tans. We are a nation of homeowners. We live in a meritocracy. If you get on your bike, you can make it. Even young royalty wear baseball caps and mimic street patois. We’re all middle class and if we’re not, then we’re chavs, members of a Yahoo, pariah underclass. Class is a thing of the past - it’s a glass of Chardonnay in front of Downtown Abbey on a Sunday night, rather than a recognisable reality. But is this, in fact, correct? Has class become the thing that dare not speak its name?

Laura Wade’s play, Posh, suggests that class – far from being extinct - has been forced to go underground or has acquired a politically correct face. The upper class still believe that they are entitled (by birth) to positions of economic and social superiority. They continue to operate through intricate networks of public schools, universities and dining clubs. The masonic rituals of privilege and preferment protect the upper class from the worries and struggles of the majority.

A private room in a gastro pub in the back end of the Oxfordshire countryside is the setting for Wade’s play. Here, the Riot Club, a gang of nine young toffs and their feckless president, gather for a meal. These people hold one thing in common: they have rich, old money parents and they believe that this economic fact gives them the liberty to trash each other and their surroundings in a night of destructive debauchery and violence. The members of The Riot Club are bound together by an allegiance to their birthright superiority and their barely-concealed contempt of the middle classes who by sheer force of numbers have eroded their aristocratic power base.

As the Riot Club members get bladdered on fine wines, their supposed good-breeding and patrician manners disappear and we are exposed to their venal, bigoted and finally, violent natures. The most vituperative Riot Club member, Alistair Ryle, rails against the levelling forces at work in contemporary Britain. Small businessmen, like the pub landlord “thinks he can have anything if he works hard enough...thinks his daughter’s getting a useful education at Crapsville College...thinking they’re cultured cause they read a big newspaper and eat asparagus and pretend not to be racist...I am sick to f***ing death of poor people.”

Posh is savagely funny, thought provoking and entertaining. Wade’s characters are so deftly drawn that one never feels she is indulging in crude agitprop or cheap pops at Lord Snootys. Although they may be dressed in flashy waistcoats, her characters and their ugly attitudes are disturbingly recognizable. Their preoccupation with wealth, sex and status is not so different to the characters in The Only Way is Essex. The political difference, Wade contends, is that her characters have power and influence and look like David Cameron. Discuss.

Posh by Laura Wade is on at the Duke of York's theatre, London

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