The Gentlemen's Tea-Drinking Society

Ransom's new play on science and celebrity has short half-life

Quantum mechanics tells us that the nature of the universe is different from what we see. It sounds impressive, but personally I prefer Sick Boy’s universal theory of everything - 'you’ve got it…then you lose it’. Not least because it perfectly sums up The Gentlemen’s Tea-Drinking Society.

For a good two-thirds of its 90 minutes this black comedy come morality play on science and 21st century society written and directed by husband and wife team Richard Dormer and Rachel O’Riordan is witty, erudite and fast-paced – pity then about the final half hour, when the gags run dry as the drama sputters to its unlikely, and unsatisfactory, denouement.

The play centres on, and takes its title from, a drinking club formed and exclusively patronised by a group of middle-class college graduates.

Once a year these Cambridge old boys meet in the London flat of wheelchair-bound Simon (Howard Teale) to drink, exchange ‘I’m a little teapot’ greetings and discuss scientific advances as dictated by rules laid down 22 years previously and kept safe in a tea urn.

The years have not been kind; a once seven-strong circle is now down to four – two lost to early, alcohol-related graves, one to Harvard. The drama opens with physicist Brian, played with manic intensity and perfect comic timing by Dormer himself in the evening’s standout performance, the first to make it through the rain for the society’s traditional soiree.

Wild-eyed and unmistakably drunk, Brian paces Simon’s living room until the rest of the Dionysian quartet arrive, first the nerdy, former maths lecturer and current AA member Larry (a suitably squat, awkward David Ireland) and finally the brash popular science writer Frank (Matthew Flynn).

University friends unhappily reunited is something of a theatrical trope but Dormer’s writing, especially in the first half, is so consistently funny it is easy to ignore the setting’s lack of originality. The audience delight in the verbal sparring between Brian and Frank that ends with the former telling his more successful rival, ‘you are about as desirable as a dose of physicist’s crotch rot’.

Ribald and witty it may be, but as The Gentlemen’s Tea-Drinking Society progresses it becomes clear the play is unable to cope with the demands placed upon it by the writer’s ambition. ‘The Gentlemen’s Society is a microcosm of our greater society,’ Dormer writes in the program notes. ‘Science and celebrity are our new gods.’

Setting the drama against the backdrop of the Hadron Collider’s attempts to recreate the origins of the universe last year, Dormer has the former squarely in his sights. Working in a top-secret laboratory in an abandoned underground tunnel Brian, we learn in the second half, has discovered the Higgs-Boson, the so-called ‘God Particle’.

In standard model physics the hitherto unobserved ‘God Particle’ explains how matter gains mass but on stage the Higgs-Boson is unable to give this play weight. Brian, it transpires, has committed multiple murders on his way to Simon’s – cue a series of less humorous Morality vs Science exchanges.

Later, in a climax that stretches credibility, we discover Simon has been literally playing god himself, and the limits of quantum mechanics as a metaphorical device are all too clearly revealed.

The Gentlemen’s Tea-Drinking Society features original music from David Holmes, in his first foray into writing for theatre. Holmes’s collage of tribal drums, found sounds and interference neatly book-ends the on-stage action, particularly the apocalyptic closing scene, though at barely five minutes in total there is no danger of music overwhelming drama. 

Peter Geoghegan

On the night the players left the stage to a standing ovation – though from only half the audience. The Gentlemen’s Tea-Drinking Society really is a play of two halves.