Mention The Graduate and the mind summons up a wealth of Sixties iconography. Be it Dustin Hoffman’s breakthrough performance in the hit movie, the seductive nylon leg on the poster, or the celebrated score from Simon & Garfunkel; the story exists as a kitsch totem of Sixties architecture. A satire on stagnant middle-income America, Charles Webb’s novel became a risqué hit as a movie fifty years ago. Today, the black comedy returns in a sharp stage adaptation by Terry Johnson.
In a co-production between West Yorkshire Playhouse and Curve in association with Simon Friend and Gavin Kalin Productions, The Graduate tells the story of listless 21-year-old Benjamin Braddock. Following his graduation, Benjamin lacks direction and inspiration, much to the concern of his whitebread parents. During a solemn evening, he avoids the attention of a party of guests, only to be seduced by the wife of his father’s business partner, the alcoholic Mrs Robinson. What follows is little more than a strand of one night stands, however, the loveless affair mobilises Benjamin into questioning his purpose and direction in life.
Lucy Bailey directs this new production, offering the usual gloss and finesse expected from West Yorkshire Playhouse. One of the producing house’s major talents is capturing a mid-century atmosphere and The Graduate excels in this regard, showcasing autumnal colours and retro patterns throughout. Offering a detailed frame which pulls its audience into the era, there’s a movie-like realism to the production with meticulously detailed stage business. This is particularly well demonstrated during the opening scenes, set against the backdrop of a bustling party which is neatly realised through photo-realistic projection. Cigarettes are endlessly sparked up too, adding an evocative aroma into the bargain.
Terry Johnson’s adaptation feels like a dynamic distillation of the movie, telescoping scenes to the pure essentials. Act one unfolds at an even measure with moments of naturalistic silence punctuating the dialogue, creating a palpable sense of awkwardness. The nuances of language are crucial to the tensions in this play, and it’s something which diminishes slightly in the second act as the pace gallops ahead in an attempt to wrap up loose ends.
The play is infamous for a nude sequence which is integral to Mrs Robinson’s seduction of Benjamin. It’s an electrifying interlude which could easily tailspin into sex farce, however Lucy Bailey’s cold-sober direction secures seriousness and sensitivity. The gravity of the scene is also assured thanks to Catherine McCormack’s magnetic performance as Mrs Robinson, offering sultry shades of Anne Bancroft’s origination.
McCormack issues a serpentine, steely drunkenness which is lightly amusing yet appropriately restrained, carefully avoiding the grotesque. There is a stillness and assuredness to McCormack’s performance and no doubt kids of today would consider Mrs Robinson to be something of an empowered ‘cougar’. The Sixties’ bourgeoisie would assess her differently, of course, as a scandalous embarrassment. McCormack undoubtedly wins every scene with her centred performance and, rightly, lets the dialogue sparkle whilst retaining an impassive, centred realism.
Jack Monaghan plays Benjamin Braddock with a gawky awkwardness and self-assured arrogance, delivering a fidgety enthusiasm which makes him irritating in all the right places. Monaghan is energetic in his movements and capitalises on some light clowning around, providing the perfect mirror to McCormack’s cagey coolness, further highlighting the gulf between their personalities, age and motivation.
The supporting cast deliver solid performances. The Braddocks are perfectly played as even and centred folk, providing little for Benjamin to rebel against except relentless dullness and kindness. Richard Clotheir is delightfully stoic as Mr Robinson, a salty alpha male who inflates to almost cartoon proportions during the infamously violent denouement. Emma Curtis sympathetically portrays plain Elaine, the Robinsons’ waiflike daughter, with a gentle naivety. If the character were to be played any softer, Elaine wouldn’t quite convince, but Curtis pitches the character with enough backbone to provide dimension to a thinly-written character.
The Graduate is a gritty, funny satire and it offers some laugh-out-loud moments, but at its core, it’s fundamentally a bleak drama with an ambiguous conclusion. The play offers a bold appraisal on the stagnant West Coast bourgeoisie of the Sixties, damning the insipid redundancy of its snowflake offspring. Faithful to its period and continuously inventive in its direction, this is a slick and stylish recreation of an iconic movie and succeeds as a theatrical production in its own right. Sexy and sardonic, The Graduate is a boozy cocktail of comic drama punctuated with nail-biting awkwardness. Be sure to check yourself in for a decadent night.
Cast: Jack Monaghan, Catherine McCormack, Rebecca Charles, Richard Clothier, Emma Curtis, Elsie Diamond, Tom Hodgkins, Daniel Crowder. Director: Lucy Bailey Writer: Charles Webb, adapted by Terry Johnson Theatre: West Yorkshire Playhouse Duration: 135 minutes Dates: Friday 28th April – Saturday 27th May 2017.