When Benjamin Braddock, former captain of the debating club, cross country winner and top in his class, laments that he’s “lost the inclination” in the first scene of The Graduate, you know you’re in for a bit of a ride. After all, you’ve done it, you’ve got your degree, you’ve done the work – what comes next? It’s essentially a play about rediscovering that inclination, or, in this case, believing you’ve rediscovered it. The story revolves around Ben, a newly-graduated Californian boy with “romantic notions”, and his, um, dealings with a friend of his parents, the disquieting, sexy Mrs Robinson.
Terry Johnson’s brilliantly funny adaptation of the original novel in 2000 charts a not-too-desirable coming of age, where cynicism and scorn rule supreme. The surprising result of this is a rather beautiful tragicomedy, which sucks you in and refuses to let go. Director David Ralf has done a stellar job, making the most of a fairly small acting space. This works really well, it draws the audience into the confining, claustrophobic atmosphere that pervades the play. There’s a fantastically cringe worthy scene in an elevator (as the lovers head for a hotel room), which is heightened by the fact they’re standing a foot from you, and you’re thus incapable of not partaking in their mutual mortification. In many ways it relies upon the participation of the audience, their willingness to become a sort of voyeuristic onlooker, the third wheel in this most unusual affair.
The Graduate makes a refreshingly relevant point about the nature of student-life; Ben feels constantly pressured by the nagging, know-it-all grown-ups around him to make the most of his “golden years”, but he views them, his degree, his life in general, as “grotesque”. Jeremy Newmark Jones portrays the angsty, confused Ben with remarkable poise and understanding of character, timing the best one-liners with hilarious precision: “Mrs Robinson, you’re definitely the most attractive of all my parents’ friends.” Of course, much of the hideous embarrassment inherent to his character relies on choosing a good Mrs R., and Erica Conway more than meets the requirement, managing to blend detached, uncaring distance with a just-discernible vulnerability.
Ultimately, the play succeeds in that it displays a real sense of uniqueness, mingling the fabulous performances from a variety of well-chosen cast members, and such nice added touches as its own purpose-written musical score which, Ralf says “modernises” the text, and makes it more in-tune with “our generation”. Ultimately, it works because it makes such a relevant point, presenting us with the extremes of Mrs Robinson and her daughter Elaine, whose youthful vibrancy is nicely interpreted by Rebecca Adams. As Ben begins to drift into nihilism, we the audience are reminded of the dangers of losing that all-important inclination, and the importance of searching for some kind of meaning, whatever it may be. The strong overlay of comedy gold only adds to the true poignancy of a thoroughly well-adapted production. Don’t miss this.