Judging a preview that’s not off script is a tricky task – only last week Bluebeard went from on-script to a delicately nuanced performance in little over a week. The cast of The Last Tutorial have a bigger job ahead of them, though. The scenes that I was shown in preview were apparently the most rehearsed, and the cast were fouling lines badly – not helped by dialogue that sometimes goes round in circles. Still, in a play which concerns budding detective Esther Jones and her cynical friend Stu investigating a professor’s suicide, the same conversations are bound to keep coming up. Was it a suicide? Can a student really investigate a murder? Will the lazy repetition of Oxford stereotypes ever end?
The play in full will answer one of these questions, but the others linger on. It’s not clear from the acting or writing whether Robert Holt’s new play is intended as a parody or genuine murder mystery. There’s a few jokes at the expense of Morse and Agatha Christie, but Esther’s characterisation seems to pitch her as a plucky heroine, rather than a figure of fun. Philly Howarth in the role shows a few glimmers of ghoulish gusto, but these are toned down by the otherwise low energy, and the tone used in most of her dialogue. Xander Brehm’s performance as Stu initially seems overly laid back, but I found myself warming to the perpetually cynical, reluctant and very natural character he brings to life – like the audience, Stu is uncomfortable with the strange goings on around him. Alessandra Gage as Tamara proves the most compelling to watch, despite the fact that her character is a mess of Anglo-American clichés, with an excellent range of facial expressions.
And the play is strange. The uneven tone pitches each scene in a new direction: the sense of parody that the plot of murder in Oxford inevitably raises (sorry, ROPE) clashes with every nod to realism. Horrifically stereotyped Bullingdon club members and American sorority exchange students make offhand references to Park End; eager students sounding like a cross between Wikipedia and the better sort of tour guide. One also delivers the line: “Don’t know many Guardian readers myself.” What kind of Oxford is this? Seeing everyday student Oxford jammed in against a plot from Lewis is nothing short of jarring.
The staging hampers a lot of the acting, with the width divided roughly into thirds that represent different areas and prevent much movement. Within the confines of the BT, limiting the space the actors can work in at any given moment seems foolish.
The play could be very funny. The dialogue, when delivered without a script in hand, has the potential to provoke guffaws, while even the most stereotyped roles hold great potential – provided the production stops trying to fit them into a ‘real’ Oxford. Playing this as parody would help conceal the logical weaknesses – the anathema to any murder mystery.
The Last Tutorial runs from 12th-16th Februrary, 7.30pm in The Burton Taylor Studio. Tickets available from £5.
PHOTO/ Emma Levinkind