It’s 1968 and the times, they are a-changing, even among the dreaming spires of Oxford university. There’s Dylan on the turntable, Maxwell House coffee on the bookshelves and a fug of marijuana smoke in the air, as young, privileged, would-be radical Toby lounges on the sofa in his rooms, drawing on a joint and planning a revolutionary staging of Coriolanus that will include the striking workers from the car plant down the road. But for American Rhodes scholar Elliott, whom Toby cajoles to act for him, life and politics are already more earnest: the Vietnam war and the draft loom over him. Alan Franks’ new play evokes the feel of that turbulent era and the murkier undercurrents, as he explores idealism and pragmatism, authenticity, integrity and means to ends.
There’s no internet yet to help out with student essays, so Toby’s friend Nick has “liberated” some books from the bookshop and is in deep trouble. To support Nick – but chiefly to impress Nick’s sweet English rose sister, Pippa (Sophia Sivan) – Toby finds himself cajoled into blackmailing an influential university tutor by exposing the little act of “borrowing” from someone else’s research that got the tutor his job. Elliott (Michael Swatton), capable and influential, steals the evidence they need (largely because he too fancies Pippa).
So Franks creates a little microcosm of political intrigue, backstabbing and hypocrisy, where high-flown, idealistic talk bumps up against more mixed motives and imperatives. “You pretend so hard that you convince yourself,” snorts Chris, the only really straight character: a plain-speaking Northerner studying chemistry.
It’s neatly worked, though some viewpoints elbow their way into the dialogue (such as Pippa’s unlikely observation about how lucky they are “it’s a scandal really”, which feels very much like an opinion composed with hindsight). It has a problem in that the characters, other than dour Chris (very well played by Dan Van Garrett), are pretty unlikeable, even if they are naive, and Sally Knyvette’s edgy, rather over-emphatic production doesn’t overcome that obstacle. But there are some nice performances – Steffan Donnelly is drolly, plausibly irritating as Toby and Crispian Cartwright is excellent as the droning Middle English tutor Mayhew. And the questions Franks raises about the significance of protest and how you translate well-meaning principles into action still seem very pertinent.