West Yorkshire Playhouse
3 May 2017
When I was a hormone-and-Weetabix fuelled teenager I sat up late one night by myself to watch ‘The Graduate’- as it turned out- did most of the boys in the lower fifth. Back in the day, my sympathies lay firmly with Benjamin, the young, disaffected Graduate of the title, seduced by his Dad’s friend’s wife, the legendary Mrs. Robinson but finding true love with her daughter. Now, seeing Terry Johnson’s stage adaptation of the film, I find that thirty plus years have put me entirely on the side of Mrs. Robinson… But that’s the beauty of Charles Webb’s story from which the film and the play derive; it takes a clear-eyed and affectionately even-handed look at middle-class suburbanites and their world of cocktail parties and dreams, swimming pools and their delusions, all characters of all ages, fathers, and sons, mothers and daughters can be understood and sympathised with.
“I’ll say one word to you, Ben,” says Mr. Robinson at the party thrown in Ben’s honour “Plastics.” Such lines sum up this whole skewed world where it’s easier to shy away from life by staying in bed than getting up to face its’ drab and driven realities.
Essentially at the heart of this story is a love triangle and this is brought sharply to life in the West Yorkshire Playhouse production directed with insight and energy by Lucy Bailey. Ben, played with authentic angst and awkwardness by Jack Monaghan and enthusiastic ‘look-on-the-bright-side’ Elaine (Emma Curtis)- as shrill in her beliefs as Ben is morose in his, fall in love over frantic chat about the Mona Lisa and Cheerios- but their conversations set against this world of dire suburban parties and equally dire stripper bars seem so much naïve banter. And then at the apex of this triangle, there is the legendary Mrs. Robinson; out of love and out of joint escaping reality with bourbon and sex, played with a magnificent disaffected weariness by Catherine McCormack. When she comes on stage the story gets an extra coughing and glowing energy throbbing with a dynamic that all but the most heartless can recognise. Of course, she wants to seduce Ben than face up to life with a man who used to sing to her but no longer does. And of course, she’s going to use every ounce of anger and manipulation she can muster to prevent her lover from dating her daughter. That her affair with Ben is nothing but a distraction (something made crystal clear in a hilarious scene where Ben tries to, um, talk to her in bed) may make her a gold-plated bitch but she’s a gold-plated bitch we can all sympathise with as she faces the prospect that youth and beauty are going to team up together and leave her behind.
The play charts the progression of this love and lust triangle with a pace that is on occasions uneven, some scenes outstaying their welcome, others presenting sharp sudden vignettes that are over before they register. It does, however, improve on the film in its closing scenes. Without giving the story away the simplistic triumphant escape of the film is expanded and unpacked in a way that shows the viewpoint of each character in what amounts to almost a wail of despair. Except for Mrs. Robinson. Her weary slump in a chair and exhalation of smoke prove louder than the loudest cry.