Finally, a play to take JAMES MACNAMARA down and make him go all weak at the knees.

Charlie Parham charlotte hamblin Corpus Playroom David Mamet Drama education emma hall five stars james macnamara oleanna Theatre

Corpus Playroom, 7th – 11th February, 7pm, £5-6

Directed by Emma Hall

[rating: 5/5]

Oleanna is a difficult play. It is a text of taut ambiguities, kept tightly wound by Mamet’s virtuosic way with uneasy exchange. Yes, it is relevant – it is about the violent power play between a university professor and his female student. The gender politics and the comments on education are fascinating.

But it is as much a play about words and how they can never really manifest the truth, and this is where its power rests – in the strange zone where we are told what happens, and still don’t know what to think.

So, the directorial decision to keep the original American voices, as if it had just opened on Broadway in 1992, was a good one. It would have been an obvious choice to imply that it was happening in Cambridge. I think the Americanisms could have been overcome with some good R.P., and everything would have been simple: “Look, it’s us! We are those people!” This was the choice I expected the director to make. I undermined her in doing so, for this was an exceptional debut.

Photos by Will Cartwright-Harwood

The quickfire exchanges were micro-rehearsed to a staggering degree. They shone and skidded along, spinning towards the climaxes and retreats that Mamet structures so perfectly. The set was detailed but not overwhelming. It had the charming additions that warm my heart in that special way – a note written by John, the Professor, reminded him to ring his wife  – but it wasn’t cloying or overwrought.

Of course, it can’t be suggested that Emma Hall was fully in control of all of these elements, but she has certainly brought them together with flair, professionalism and insight. Now we come to the performances. They were two very difficult roles, with very difficult dialogue. Luckily, we had two very gifted actors. ‘Charlie²’ (Charlie Parham x Charlie Hamblin) are actors, through and through, and this production reveals them at their most professional and most sensitive.

Accents were flawless throughout. I noticed one or two minute word slips, but a remarkably small number considering the difficulty of the text. Carol is famously morally ambiguous, and Charlotte Hamblin tightroped her between all-powerful, all-crazy and all-calm with wonderful dexterity. Parham’s John was smooth and likeable, but ultimately terrifying just at the moments that it was required of him – and no more. It would have been easy to overdo these roles, and whilst Hamblin’s intensity was occasionally extremely unnerving, both of these roles were pitched exactly where they ought to have been.

It says much about this production that it made me forget my RAG Blind Date nerves, and that I haven’t had to resort to an anecdote from the evening to form an angle for this review. The serious hat has been on, as it should be from time to time. I urge you to go, listen hard, talk about it, and decide for yourself. I hope you’ll find yourself in the same position as me.