The Graduate – Festival Theatre, Malvern

Writer: Terry Johnson adapted from the novel by Charles Webb and the screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry

Director: Lucy Bailey

Reviewer: Geoff Mill

Terry Johnson’s adaptation draws on both the novel and the screenplay to offer us a slick, funny but oddly superficial version of The Graduate. Those who have watched the film, starring Dustin Hoffman as the not particularly charming, over-privileged Benjamin, will be familiar with the   basic plot. A brilliant young graduate finds himself seduced by a family friend’s sexually alluring, dipsomaniac wife. Although for a while he enjoys this senseless sensuality, he begins to question the values of the wealthy middle class world he seems set to become part of. In contrast he finds in Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, a ‘naive, unworldly and absurdly sincere’ young woman, a whole new set of values and beliefs he can identify with. Inevitably his affections switch from the unhappy and debauched housewife to her hopeful debutante of a daughter, a romantic shift which of course incurs the rage and resentment of her parents, a cocktail so combustible Mr. Robinson (Richard Clothier) is incited to swing an axe at Benjamin’s head.

Catherine McCormack offers us a staggering, slurry, smoldering Mrs. Robinson. Between steamy sessions she unfurls a tale of nuptial misery. Jack Monaghan, meanwhile, plays Benjamin as a lean, hungry animal perpetually on the prowl for meaning. Knowing, cynical before his time, and suspicious of phoniness in the same way Holden is in Catcher in the Rye, he makes for an unlikely match with Elaine, a veritable simpleton by contrast. But she is kind, and wholesome, and virtuous, and this is after all what attracts him. Emma Curtis plays her beautiful blandness to perfection.

The real unseen genius of the show, however, is Mike Britton, whose ever-fluid design gives the production its expensive and expansive 1960s feel. The bed  – whether in a boutique hotel, a cheap motel,  or a lover’s  home – usually takes central position in a setting that is deliciously chic and  massively spacious. There is use of film, too, which takes on an abstract form to take us inside of the mind of a young man beleaguered by his circumstances. There are images of drowning, and crowding, and suffocation.

Despite the many strengths of this highly slick production, however, the weaknesses lie in a script that moves at too ponderous a pace and relies almost exclusively on the drama of the moment rather than on any sense of imminent peril. In the 1967 film, for example, there is a moment of excruciating tension when Benjamin is drilled by the husband over a family meal. In Terry Johnson’s version, however, the affair seems to occur in splendid isolation from the marriage and there is little concern that Mr. Robinson might burst in at any moment. Benjamin’s evolution as a character, likewise, is underdeveloped and our identification with him as a character is weak. One hardly cares whether he gets what he wants, and he certainly doesn’t deserve to.

Lucy Bailey’s production may be stunning to view and engaging to watch but there won’t be much to chew over on the drive home.

Runs until 17 June 2017 and on tour | Image: Manual Harlan

Review Overview

The Reviews Hub Score

Slick, sensual but superficial

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The Reviews Hub - Central

The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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