Alex Boyd-Williams and Jim Reddy, Alex Boyd-Williams and Jim Reddy's "Fresher", Edinburgh Fringe, Freshers' Week, Pleasance Courtyard, Safe Spaces, Students, Theatre Review, University, Uppingham School
Ten first-year undergraduates enter a therapist’s sanctuary one by one. They seat themselves in a circular firing squad formation. The “university authorities” have summoned each of these students here to answer for a serious misdemeanour which was committed during “fresher’s week.” Each student has to read out the charges against them, as they are printed beneath the university’s letterhead, and then each has to witness the other students therapeutically re-enacting their own wrongdoing. These re-enactments in the least trigger discussion, and more commonly vociferous condemnation. By the end of the session, some of the students have grown more self-aware, whilst others are unchanged or unrepentant. It is not obvious that the therapy has worked.
This is “Fresher,” which is presently showing at the Pleasance Courtyard. The flaws of the play are chiefly structural. Ten is too many students; there are too many stories to house comfortably in such a “small room” and such a short play. That acknowledged, a weaker play would have left the audience counting down to the ending, student by student. I caught myself doing this after only seven or so students. There is a merry, Canterbury Tales richness and diversity to the platter. Each character makes enough of a dent in the play to justify their inclusion.
“Fresher” is not, it should be noted, minded to be satirical. It does not yield to the temptation to turn on the febrile, almost Maoist climate which is currently reigning across university campuses, amongst students who want to concrete over politics with “safe spaces.” The students in “Fresher” are, as a social group, commonsensical, and it is the “university authorities” who are responsible for the madcap therapy session. Indeed, the authorities come across as unusually soft and all criminality on campus is apparently smoothed away as a pastoral policy. The uni is protecting its own. For their part, the students unquestionably accept the authorities who are presumably monitoring everything on stage through CCTV.
Igor, our spokesman against campus political correctness, is safely buffoonish and, rather wonderfully, a racist caricature. He is sternly Russian and speaks with a mouthful of borscht. Meanwhile, anybody with an opinion is revealed to be compromised or a hypocrite. The feminist will not disapprove of a girl who is accused of sexual intimidation. The thief generally gets away with pity for her crimes, because she is poor and a carer, until she is confronted with the vision of another poor student who has her laptop stolen. These ironies are all too evenly balanced and rather too blunt.
You will observe that I am criticising the writing rather than the acting. In the latter respect, “Fresher” is something of a psychological curiosity. The actors are all sixth-formers from Rutland’s prestigious Uppingham School and so in real life they still have fresher’s week ahead of them. “Fresher” is written by their “housemasters” Alex Boyd-Williams and Jim Reddy. This is the single fact which explains the entire play and impales it upon an interesting paradox.
These kids have first experienced fresher’s week, their first week of liberated adulthood and unrestricted autonomy, via a lurid drama about its worst possible consequences. They have been effectively projected into a public safety advert about unsupervised adult life. Whilst the characters in the play are confronted with therapeutic reenactments of their past actions, the actors who are playing them have the same actions waiting for them in the future.
Fortunately, the play is enjoyable enough to largely efface the somewhat sinister forces behind its creation. Lucy, the autistic hacker who has memorised the personal information of everyone on campus, is a particularly well told joke. The most interesting character is Damien, who is beautifully evil though, within the potted morality of the therapy on offer, he has little to worry about. Like Iago, Damien tries to remain silent and his lack of success in this is the only thing that he is compromised on. His character hints at deeper, more subversive ironies.
So “Fresher” is not quite dangerous but it is still rather more worthwhile than a safe space.