Review: An Open Book
Writer Rosalind Moran brings us a truly ‘novel’ take on the hidden amorality of academics
Described as “a Wildean farce set in modern-day Cambridge”, Rosalind Moran’s play is a humourous and highly entertaining assessment of the present impact of meritocracy on the future of academia. The play rejects all that is “dull and bland” and generally socially acceptable by exposing the mishaps of St John’s fictional Professor Ernest Gray, whose spotless record is threatened by the blackmail of a malicious librarian.
Its light-hearted storytelling fills a perfect niche for humanities students looking to escape the constant torment of footnotes, plagiarism and deadlines. The plot is brought to life by director Katie Kasperson, who successfully encompasses the silliness of a scene reserved for the upper class.
This is in particular a sparkling gem of a play for English students; while some of the more niche jokes may be lost on an audience unfamiliar with the world of Cambridge academia, the play’s take on the tortured English academic is undeniably funny. It makes it accessible to that broader audience, meaning that there is something for everyone. Every time Ernest quotes yet another section of Macbeth, the melodramatic performance gave birth to a new set of chuckles from the audience.
The quantity of eye-rolling bookish puns came across as excessive at some points, but I think this only adds to the overall dry and repetitive humour that not only characterises the show but also encompasses the message of the show which is a simultaneous rejection and identification of the derivative nature of the academia scene itself – metatheatre at its finest.
What really brings the play to life however, is the passionate performance of a cast that is all too familiar with the ridiculous and mundane drama encompassed within the walls of an archaic institution.
Gabriel Jones plays the role of Ernest perfectly, balancing an endearing level of whimsy with the desperation of someone who wants to keep his place in the dog-eat-dog meritocracy. He also embodies the classic Romantic yearning of unrequited love in a very sweet and innocent manner; his take on the aspiring academic presents a prophetic mirror to an audience perhaps currently caught up in the undergraduate japes of balancing work and partying (a lifestyle we do not endorse, of course *eyes emoji*). In such a charming character, the future of Cambridge’s students looks bright indeed.
On the other hand, representing the outdated and shadowy past that haunts the academia scene is the master of St John’s, in Freya Cowan’s Sir Gideon Emsworth (OBE). While not in any way affiliated with the real St John’s college, Freya does a fantastic job of representing the struggles of rich, white, cishet men: a true 21st-century tragedy. The plot twist is especially ingenious, and Freya succeeds in portraying this slow and outdated paragon of nepotism.
The award for biggest show-stealer has to go to the villainous Liv Bouton, whose dynamic and theatrical performance as the Librarian rocks the stage (literally: at one point the Librarian throws herself onto the floor in a feral fit of rage). Liv’s rageful and impassioned performance not only breathes new life into the obsolete trope of the boring bibliophilic librarian but also adds excitement and drama to an environment defined by its blandness.
The supporting cast of the moral philosopher and love interest Athena played by Isabelle Duffy-Cross and current student Sam played by Isabella Bottle offer equally endearing takes on the members of this hallowed institution, as both engage with their characters to break free from their preconceived ideas of moral correctness. Their performances grew in quality as their characters escaped the subdued nature of their tropic roles – Athena comes into her own when she realises that she’s not the morally perfect judge that she was raised to be, and it is when Sam acknowledges the hypocrisy of Ernest that she shines.
Overall, An Open Book acts as a love letter to the quirks of Cambridge academic life, whilst simultaneously addressing issues to do with nepotism and hypocrisy, offering a hopeful future and a way out of academic elitism for the university. With its wit and self-aware, eye-rolling puns, the show is a bright production that will definitely warm the hearts of any undergraduate student dealing with the same issues of standing out in a world that can feel derivative at times, ending on a hopeful message. Perhaps we can all take a leaf out of Ernest’s book and learn that to be an academic means to be in pursuit of truth, bravery, and an extra slice of cake at the next faculty party.
An Open Book is showing on the 17th – 21st of May at 7:00 pm at the Corpus Playroom. Book your tickets here.
Feature image credits: Katie Kasperson