Bewick Gaudy won the Cameron Mackintosh Award for New Writing, and was performed at the O’Reilly Theatre, directed by David V. Cochrane. I’d started it as scenes for a novel, but it ended up as my first attempt to write a play which hung together beyond a collection of sketches. I had a vague idea whilst writing it that the play was a searing satire on university life, but almost immediately after the production I realized I’d written an angry love-letter to Oxford, somehow managing to be nostalgic about a place where I was still living. The title is, of course, inspired by Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night (itself a quotation from Antony and Cleopatra which I admit I hadn’t read at the time).
I learnt a lot from the process of seeing Bewick rehearsed and staged, notably that the jokes about cultural materialism will never get the laughs you think they deserve, and that when a director asks you to go away and “really dirty up the seduction scene”, they don’t mean you should introduce a tenuous sequence of metaphors about equestrianism. The Cherwell called it “well worth seeing for its sharp exposé of Oxford life and a script which is by turns lyrical and naturalistic, and strewn with great one-liners”, and I think I bought that critic a drink at a launch party later in the year. I thought the play might provoke a few chuckles (for whatever reason), so here’s the first scene, to be followed by the rest in later posts – Scene 2, part I – Scene 2 Part II
The action of the play takes place in a fictional Oxford college, “Bewick College”, during the night of a gaudy dinner and the next morning. Scenes one and two are set in the underground college bar, and scenes three and four in a quad above the bar.
The students, all in their second year at the college, in their early twenties
Ed; Patrick; Beth
The old members, all graduated in 94, in their early thirties
Mark; Jeanie; Geoff
The college staff;
Barman: late twenties; David: head of the college Development Office, early forties
SCENE 1: THE BAR.
PATRICK and ED are sitting at a table, with diminished pints in front of them. The BARMAN is sitting at the bar reading a paper.
PATRICK: I just can’t believe everyone knows!
ED: Fucking will out, boy. Some things can be kept quiet. Shirts, music, siblings, maybe. Not that. Not in this college. Even if it’s meaningful.
ED: When she remembers your name as she’s coming.
PATRICK: Heh heh. Nice. Though I have to say, I’m not sure Chrissy would have.
(DAVID enters and hangs around by the barman, apparently speaking to him.)
PATRICK: Well, not that I want to boast or anything, but I’m afraid possibly not, no.
ED: Then you could be anyone. (He swigs the last of his pint and gets up for another.) Another Castlemaine? (He gets to the bar) Two pints of Castlemaine, cheers.
DAVID: Not for you boys. The old members are arriving.
PATRICK: Ah, come on, one more drink.
DAVID: Nope. Go on, go carry some chairs around and leave us with a nice clean bar.
ED and PATRICK shrug and leave the bar. DAVID picks up a tabloid from the table, folds it and puts it neatly on the rack, then pours himself a drink and disappears behind the bar.
GEOFF enters, looks around and hovers rather uncertainly, glancing at the photos above the bar. The barman flips the paper closed and moves round behind the bar.
BARMAN: What can I get you?
GEOFF: Oh, a glass of red, please.
The barman pours a glass from a bottle behind the bar and replaces the bottle.
MARK enters and walks up to the bar.
BARMAN: One pound seventy, please.
GEOFF hands him the money.
MARK: When you’re ready, mate.
BARMAN makes change for GEOFF, who thanks him. BARMAN goes over to MARK.
BARMAN: What’s it to be?
MARK: Pint. Carlsberg, cheers.
BARMAN pours the pint and charges him. MARK takes a pull at the pint and looks around the bar.
MARK: Must be quite quiet in here out of term-time?
BARMAN: Pretty, yeah. Just a few students staying on to work, and some of the graduates in the evenings.
MARK: Well that’ll change now we’re all down for the reunion, eh? Probably be pretty rowdy down here for the next few days, you reckon?
BARMAN: Well, I dunno, I’ve worked a gaudy before, it’s not…
MARK: Yeah, it’ll be old times again. The six pint mafia. You still serve snakebite and black?
Jeanie enters and looks around.
BARMAN: Certainly do. So when were you here?
MARK: Ten years back. (Nods.) Class of ’94, that’s me. Had some good times. ‘Specially down here, know what I mean? (He turns and notices Jeanie.) Can I, er, get you a drink?
JEANIE: (Beat, then, evenly) I’ll have a gin and tonic, thanks.
MARK: Gin and tonic, please, mate. (Turns back to Jeanie) So, you were here back in the nineties, then?
JEANIE: Weren’t we all. (Beat.) I mean, I assume…
MARK: Yeah, class of ’94. I’m Mark Tilling.
JEANIE: Jeanie Patrick. English. (Realising she’s regressed to a different introductory tone.) Um, thirteenth year, I suppose.
MARK: (Beat, then gets it. Laughs.) Yeah, I guess me too.
BARMAN: (Serving the g and t.) One pound forty, please. MARK pays him and is changed.
JEANIE: (Raising her glass.) Cheers.
GEOFF: (To the BARMAN) Excuse me, do you know what time the dinner starts?
BARMAN: About half seven, as far as I know.
DAVID appears from the back of the bar, carrying some pieces of card and bustling slightly.
Hey, David, the dinner’s at half past seven, isn’t it?
DAVID turns to the old Bewickites and smiles at them.
DAVID: Yes, we’ll be assembling at about half past the hour. No gowns or anything. Except for the dons, of course. You’ll find a seating plan on the wall by the main door on your way in.
GEOFF and MARK: Thanks.
MARK: (Looking at his watch) Half past. Doesn’t really leave us much time get reacquainted with the old place before herding into the hall, does it? (To GEOFF.) So, you’re down here for the reunion as well?
GEOFF: Yes indeed. I’m Geoff.
JEANIE: Geoff Lonsdale?
GEOFF: Yes. (Pause) I’m sorry…
JEANIE: No, sorry, I don’t know you either. I just sort of remembered the name.
GEOFF: I read Ancient and Modern History. We’d probably have been up at the same time; I’m what might you might call a thirteenth year as well.
MARK: Ah, the old Class of 94, eh?
GEOFF: Yes, though I think we’re actually Class of ’91 if anything; I think (he knows for certain) here it’s counted from matriculation rather than when we graduated.
MARK: Oh, yeah. Right.
GEOFF: Another little peculiarity of the system, I suppose.
JEANIE: We do tend towards the eccentric at times.
MARK: You’re not lying. I mean what’s that traipsing round the dining hall on May Day about? We’re supposed to be a college in one of the world’s best universities and once every year we dress up and mince around the room in slow-motion! You really have to wonder sometimes, don’t you?
GEOFF: As I understand, it commemorates the founders of the college and all the Wardens since them. The procession stops under each coat of arms on the wall.
JEANIE: Are both of you staying in college for the gaudy?
GEOFF: Yes. Yourself?
JEANIE: Yes, I came in from Leicester this morning. I have to say, I’m rather looking forward to being in the city again for a few days.
MARK: Relive old times, eh?
JEANIE: (Slightly wry, rather than coquettish) Something like that. See if it still feels that cold down by the river on a winter morning.
MARK: The best days of our lives. You don’t believe it at the time, but there’s something in it.
GEOFF: There is something very special in time here, certainly. A bell rings outside.
JEANIE: Sounds like it’s time to eat.
DAVID appears at the door and holds it open for them as they put down their glasses and walk out; MARK arranges it so they leave JEANIE first, then himself, and finally GEOFF. DAVID closes the door.
BARMAN: Alright, Beth?
BETH: Yeah, not bad. Can I get a vodka and lemonade? BARMAN gets to work. How are things?
BARMAN: Pretty good. Bit more work on with everyone staying down here. Porters are going mad, of course. He serves the drink. Quite honestly, I won’t mind having something to do in here of an evening.
BETH: (Grins) Yeah, I’ll bet. Cheers. She takes the drink and sits at a table, taking the paper from the rack and spreading it rather messily out on the tabletop. She leafs through it without much interest.
ED and PATRICK appear and sit down, both opposite her.
ED: Hey babe.
BETH: Hello to both of you.
ED leans forward over the table, neck extended, obtruding himself into her perusal of the paper.
ED: Watcha readin’?
BETH: (Declaims, eyes still fixed on page.) “SENSATIONAL DISCOVERY IN OXFORD COLLEGE…Bewick College, Oxford, was discovered to be full of wankers this afternoon, after several complete tools were noticed earlier in the day swanning around the place and pissing everyone off. The sudden influx has been blamed on a gaudy dinner, and a spokesman for the college said; “We’re really quite used to wankers in the college, as Ed has been here now for two years.”
They laugh and Ed makes a face at her.
PATRICK: Oh, dear, who’s been naffing you off?
BETH: (Pushing the paper away.) Oh, nothing serious. Just all these bastards wandering around patronizing anything in sight and trying to tell you how they once lived in this staircase and isn’t it weird, and their mate Jimmy lived just across from here. I’ve had that shit four times so far, as well as two “maybe I’ll see you in the bar later”s.
PATRICK: Poor you.
ED: Well, looks like the David was right when he said he’d invited a bunch of old members. The other two laugh
PATRICK: Why can’t they just nob off and have lives?
BETH: True dat.
ED: At least they didn’t close the bar tonight. SCR was talking about it.
BETH: Yeah, that’d be just like. BewickCollege, purged of all inconveniences, including education, noise and students.
ED: Well, don’t let it distract you, darling.
BETH: From what? It’s not like I have any life at the moment except drudging for these feckless bastards.
PATRICK: From what? From your plans to take over the college!
ED: We’ve been working too, you know. But we spent the chair-carrying bits of the day in forging a campaign strategy. No other prospective Welfare Officer in college history has had such a dedicated policy think-tank behind her.
BETH: Oh, god.
PATRICK: It’s gonna be huge.
BETH: So, Pat, I hear you’re boning Chrissy, then.
ED: Oh yeah, she’s lovin’ the Pat-lovin’. All night long.
BETH: How was it, dear? Were you very splendid and stallion-like? Or rather wormy and unsatisfying?
PATRICK: Sod off.
BETH: (To Ed) I’m afraid he was wormy.
ED: Mmm, I think so. What a pity. (To PATRICK.) Did you see her reaching into the bed-side cabinet as you left?
PATRICK: You…(Fails to come back, but pointedly says nothing for a pause in an attempt to rise above. ) You’re both very coarse.
ED: We are. It comes of not getting any. Like spears left unoiled, we grow rusty and crusty in the corner.
BETH: Euww! Maybe you do, mooning after Michael all term…
ED: But we’re getting off the subject. We need to get Beth elected as Welfare Officer next term.
BETH: Why’re you so anxious I get the job? It’s only JCR Executive Committee.
PATRICK: Oh, the power, the free condoms, seeing Sally beaten in the elections…
ED: Basically just a mucky feeling of having some influence in this place.
(He looks pointedly at the bar.) We’d happily take our fee in alcohol, of course.
BETH: (Taking the hint, and pulling a fiver from her purse.) Go on, then. (Hands it to PATRICK, who starts for the bar) And I want some change.
PATRICK: (To Ed) Castlemaine?
ED: Nah, I quite fancy a snakebite actually.
PATRICK: (To the BARMAN) Snakebite, and a Castlemaine, please.
BARMAN: Blackcurrant cap?
PATRICK: Yeah, please.
The BARMAN obliges.
ED: Hey, you know who’s running for Sports Rep.
BETH: Amaze me.
The BARMAN finishes the snakebite, serves it, and is paid.
ED: Which do you think? Tall Mike.
PATRICK brings the drinks over and stacks the change by BETH’s elbow.
BETH: Well, I should think he’s pretty much guaranteed to get the position, isn’t he?
PATRICK: And this is another reason you have to beat Sally in the election. We can’t have the girlfriend of the Sports Rep as Welfare.
ED: Like Church and State. You gotta have daylight between them. (Takes a drink of his pint.) Executive bodies behind locked doors. Unhealthy overlap. Curry nights and peer counselling in the same bed. All kinds of constitutional ming.
BETH: Well, you may have a point. Tall Mike is a bit of a wanker, and I really don’t want to have to listen to her going on about them being Executive Committee together. Anyway, I have to shift. I’ll see you boys later.
ED: Later. We shall have slogans by the next time you meet us.
BETH: Oh dear.
Beth rises from the table.
BETH: (To PATRICK) And you, be good to Chrissy. She’s a nice little bitch, she doesn’t deserve to get mucked up, not after the hard time she went through last term.
PATRICK: I thought that was a bit harsh.
PATRICK: Well, why should I muck up Chrissy? We’ve only just started going out. If we even are, I mean it’s not like we’ve talked about whether we’re officially going to be a couple or anything. How come everyone assumes she’s not going to muck me up?
ED: (Looks at him, and , still eyes level, brings his glass up and drinks) Come on, let’s get a kebab. I’m getting hungry. Let’s do one thing those bastards upstairs never did.
PATRICK: Yeah, I could do with some chips. They rise and walk out. Wouldn’t say no to some curry sauce, either.