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Esther Bancroft shuts herself away from summer exams at The Room Above as Tea and Temptation, an anarchic and witty romp that takes its cues from Austen and Wilde, is debuted. 

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that exhausted students in the height of exam season, must be in want of some good comedy. Tea and Temptation, despite being only a read-through, does not disappoint. The writer Tom Besley, who also plays the naïve and easily manipulated Seb—a modern day Mr.Bingley—took me through the play’s inspiration. Based upon Love and Friendship, the 2016 film adaptation of Austen’s short story, Besley says although the Georgian setting of strained social conventions and taut politeness was chosen to make the language more biting, the script was not originally a period drama. But that provides a lot of the play’s humour, where the mention of Uber disturbs the charming picture of horse and carriage the language creates.

Besley reminds us how Austen and Wilde are both witty and intelligent architects of language, and he elevates this by bringing the rhetoric to modern day

The period allows Besley to show how two-faced people can be; how something once thought believable can become ‘fake news’. Or perhaps the setting just makes the play even more ridiculous, as the cast break out of Austen-like niceties to shout ‘Fuck you—you fucking bitch’. Mrs Bennet would have a fit.

The plot revolves around a selfish and obsessive student Hazel, whose skill lies in manipulating those around her to get what she wants: ‘And I took it’, she resolutely announces in the climax of the play. With the help of her flatmate Luke she plans on dumping her witless boyfriend to sleep with the pretentious Mr Hathestop, who is the epitome of a ‘deep, intellectual’ English student: glasses, narcissism and all. She is also in competition with Miss Melody for a research job, and with little sense and no sensibility she attempts to scheme her way to success. Full credit therefore goes to Grace Vance for being so convincing, particularly as the ‘social gathering’ descends into anarchy and Hazel still attempts to maintain control.

He [Besley] injects current conversations concerning immigration, sexuality and monogamy with the spike of Austen at her best

The Wildean stylistic features frame an evening during which her guests market themselves in unacknowledged competition whilst claiming they cannot continue ‘for the sake of modesty’. These are the people who send family letters at Christmas time and expect you to express a genuine interest. They are all so bound by a sickening martyrdom and abrasive selflessness that their ends are—almost—justified. Throw in some wine, sleeping pills, the imaginary traditions of Spanish wine tasting—did I mention sleeping pills?—and you have, as is nicely phrased in the play as: ‘A Comedy of Manners degenerated into a Comedy of Malice’.

Besley reminds us how Austen and Wilde are both witty and intelligent architects of language, and he elevates this by bringing the rhetoric to modern day. Losing itself in parody, Besley provides a more than good enough skeleton of the play. He injects current conversations concerning immigration, sexuality and monogamy with the spike of Austen at her best. His meta-theatrical allusions and self-marketing during the play also provided a clever touch.

an extremely promising start to a play crammed with ideas

The cast are superb; at the end we are reminded how the actors are also caught in the drudgery of exam season, and yet they already produce convincing characters. I cannot wait to see them on stage soon. There are a few notes, however; some elements of the first half lag slightly, which would be easily resolved with a tightening up of some lines. Besley would benefit from cutting some of the jokes which didn’t quite work, or fell slightly unnoticed—only apparent after a first run in front of an audience, of course.

Some of the writing felt a little safe, such as debates over Bristol SU, bringing up issues that have been heard before. However, Alice’s hilariously futile attempts to avoid being homophobic and Nurse Foucault’s poorly concealed racism provide more laughs. Some simple editing would keep the audience engaged and alert for the better writing, such as the scene between Hazel and Miss Melody. The mixture of sly remarks and restraint for politeness’ sake brilliantly mirrors Celia and Gwendolen’s bitch-fest in Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest, and is just as entertaining. Overall, an extremely promising start to a play crammed with ideas: praise must be given to Tom Besley as the means of uniting them.


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