Thomas W. Hodgkinson


By Howard Brenton
Hampstead Theatre, London

Do teenagers arrive at Oxford, fall on their backs, crying “It’s heaven on earth!”? Do people, in moments of remorse, exclaim: “What have I done?” The veteran playwright Howard Brenton thinks they do, and that’s the biggest, but not the only, problem with his new play, which is inspired by Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure. A lissom Syrian refugee with a passion for ancient Greek literature (Isabella Nefar) longs to study at Oxford. But the Islamist sympathies of her intense cousin, who is also her lover (Merch Husey), may make her persona non grata. Occasionally Euripides pops up to offer advice or make snarky comments. There’s nothing wrong with any of this, but Brenton’s already awkward dialogue is poorly served by a tentative cast. The exception is Caroline Loncq, who briefly ignites the evening with her turn as a ferociously vaping lesbian don. Yet the Brechtian notes, classical allusions, contemporary issues and nods to Hardy fail to gel. Brenton, who used to write for the TV show Spooks, even throws in a couple of sinister security agents. It feels as if he has taken the ingredients from two or three plays, mixed them together and hoped for the best. No such pot luck.