The Graduate

Downstage Theatre, Wellington

31/03/2007 - 28/04/2007

Production Details

Adapted by Terry Johnson from the novel by Charles Webb and the motion picture screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry
By special arrangement with StudioCanal

Directed by Catherine Downes


Set & costumes - Nicole Cosgrove
Lights - Phillip Dexter

The cult comedy that defined a generation is back!

The novel was a 60s cult classic; the film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, made stars out of Dustin Hoffman and Katherine Ross and the acclaimed stage version of this comical, iconic slice of American pop culture has seduced the West End, Broadway and now, you.

Benjamin returns home from college with excellent grades, proud parents and an uncertain future. Benjamin’s dad ‘s friend, Mr. Robinson, recommends that Ben seize every opportunity that comes his way so he does: specifically Mrs Robinson.

Life seems to be on the up for Benjamin when he meets Elaine and falls in love. But there’s one problem: she’s Mrs. Robinson’s daughter!

Catherine Wilkin
Julian Wilson
Laurel Devenie
Geraldine Brophy
Peter Hambleton
Alistair Browning
Kali Kopae
Sam Downes

Theatre ,

2 hrs 5 mins, incl. interval

Filling in the blanks

Review by Melody Nixon 09th Apr 2007

The Graduate is defined as a “classic cult comedy”, and the play we are presented with at Downstage is just that – a humorous cultural memento of a past American generation. It provides many a laugh and some wonderful performances, from Mrs. Robinson (Catherine Wilkin) and a befuddled Mrs. Braddock (Geraldine Brophy) to the incensed Mr. Robinson (Peter Hambleton). But at times this production fails to move beyond the archival nature of the script to make direct contact with the audience. There are moments of one-dimensional screenplay, rather than live, engaging theatre.

The enormous success of the film must overshadow any Graduate stage production, not only for the luxury of the film’s set and cast, but for the comparisons that are bound to be made. Indeed in Terry Johnson’s stage adaptation there are many similarities to the film in dialogue and setting. The diving suit from the film’s most tragicomic scene is transposed to the opening scene of the play, where we see protagonist Benjamin Braddock (Julian Wilson) looming out of his darkened bedroom. Catherine Wilkin approaches Ben’s first kiss in the manner of Mrs. Robinson in the film, and her naked revelations still take the form of “I want you to know I’m available, Benjamin.” These similarities do tend to distract us from being immersed in the action on stage.

Away from the shadow of the film however, there are stand alone issues in script and production that hamper our enjoyment. Dialogue wise, the production takes time to gather speed and momentum. Initially the North American accents jar, and seem forced and uncomfortable. There is little build up to the scene of seduction between Mrs. Robinson and Ben. In a farcical manner Ben leaps upon her and engages in various vapid sex scenes which lead too quickly to arguing. We are not allowed to wallow and absorb this all important point in the story – instead, it feels like something to be gotten out of the way before the real action may occur.

However this said, the production succeeds in many aspects. Wilkin is a suitably sly, blasé and captivating Mrs. Robinson, her enjoyment of the role coming through in her performance. Laurel Devenie is a confident and sweetly naïve Elaine, and leads us believably to the scene of her transformation into determined rebellion.

Geraldine Brophy and Peter Hambleton are exciting supports. As Mrs. Braddock, Brophy has perfected an expression of bewildered confinement. Timed with an emotive Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack (alla film), her exits make for consistently humorous scene ends. Though Hambleton’s portrayal of the hotel concierge could have benefited from a layer of sarcasm and suspicion, his role as the alternately enraged and vulnerable Mr. Robinson does much to inspire our sympathy.

There are some similarities between Julian Wilson’s portrayal of Ben in this production and that of his Benjamin Cohen in Circa’s 2006 The Underpants. Wilson has captured the frenetic anxiety of both Bens with ease. But whereas Benjamin Cohen’s constant hysteria was endurable – in fact delightful – as a supporting role, The Graduate’s Ben needs more variation and depth. On opening night at least, Wilson came across as a little too neurotic and overwrought, with none of the subtle reflection and pause required for us to empathise with Ben Braddock’s plight.

Visually, set by Nicole Cosgrove and Philip Dexter is craftily designed, adding a fitting depth of colour and pattern. A large, gaudy bed symbolically becomes the focal point of all scenes, changing the setting from bedroom to strip club and back. Lighting is especially attentive to the changing mood and atmosphere. Costume design seems consistent, with some superb numbers adorned by Mrs. Braddock, though the flappy retro-ish coat Benjamin wears seems unlikely for the young son of a wealthy businessman.

Overall, Downstage’s The Graduate is entertaining for its humour and cultural context. Its exploration of rebellious kids meeting conservative oldies, the light it sheds on the subjugated role of women at the time, and its charged environment of personal and almost-collective sexual liberation, summon a vivid picture of 1960s USA. That is perhaps reason enough to see the show, however in this production I am left with a feeling of filling-in-the-blanks, of urging the characters to connect with script and with story in ways that they do not manage on stage.

Originally published in The Lumière Reader.


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Nostalgic curiosities

Review by Lynn Freeman 05th Apr 2007

Strange to learn that the real life Benjamin Braddock, whose story has been told for so many years now in the film and stage versions of The Graduate, is pretty much destitute, having signed away the rights for a ridiculously small amount of money.

In its time The Graduate shocked viewers – an older married woman seducing the 20 year old son of her best friends, he then goes on to fall in love with the woman’s daughter.

Now it takes a lot more than that to shock audiences, so this is far more of a nostalgic piece of theatre. Catherine Downes’ production also goes unashamedly for the laughs in the script, with the audience being so much in that comedy mode that it was rather disconcerting to hear people in the preview night audience laughing when Ben was wrongly accused of rape.

The other curious thing about this version of the play is that it feels rather tame. We see, even through the deliberate on-stage darkness, that this Mrs Robinson is wearing underwear in the notorious nude seduction scene. The stripper wears a skin coloured bra with tassles on it – rather less likely to shock the naïve Elaine Robinson. That’s all in the first half, but the second half picks up momentum and there are moments of real emotional depth that bring the production back into balance.

Apart from being a good 10 years too old for the role of Ben, Julian Wilson specialises in comedy and his Benjamin is almost vaudevillian at times – funny, yes, but the rather sweet side to the character tends to be lost in all the wild gesticulations. Catherine Wilkin’s Mrs Robinson is cold – attractive, smart and damaged, but so very cold that it’s hard to see how Benjamin would fall for her.

Laurel Devinie is a very sweet Elaine, with enough occasional sparks to remind us she’s Mrs Robinson’s daughter after all. There are strong performances from Peter Hambleton as the wronged Mr Robinson, especially when he confronts Ben, and Alistair Browning, whose Mr Braddock is truly shocking when he stops being an ineffectual father and lashes out at Ben.

Nicole Cosgrove’s set is certainly striking and achieves what she set out to do, to create a world where everything is just not quite right, somehow out of kilter (though the dribbly water features on the front of the stage are plain silly). The problem, though, is the big bed in the middle of the stage which is always there, badly cramming the space available for the actors to work with when they’re not actually in the jolly thing.


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Blurred vision

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 03rd Apr 2007

When watching any adaptation of a work on screen or stage you are always seeing double: what’s in front of you and what you remember of the original. Some times the original refuses to budge, some times the adaptation takes over, and some times it leaves you with blurred vision.

Terry Johnson’s adaptation of Calder Willingham and Buck Henry’s film adaptation of Charles Webb’s novel The Graduate owes as much – more probably – to the novel than the famous movie.

The 1967 film captured the zeitgeist of the times in the USA: youthful dissatisfaction with the smug, complacent affluence of the Establishment, which is symbolized in the film by Benjamin Braddock’s parents and friends in Los Angeles. Their social and sexual habits are debunked with a sly humour and a satirical edge and accompanied by the songs of Simon and Garfunkel.

The play, whose success overseas in 2000 seems to have depended upon famous actresses and models-turned-actresses appearing in the nude for twenty seconds on a dimly lit stage, keeps reminding you of the film and only comes into focus when it forgets it.

So the drunken scene between Mrs. Robinson and her daughter, Elaine, and the pure theatrical farce of the penultimate scene when Benjamin attempts to stop Elaine’s wedding to Carl breathe some life into the play because we are not reminded of the film as we are, for example, when Mrs. Robinson blows smoke rings from her mouth after Benjamin kisses her or when Elaine is humiliated at a strip club.

While the adults in the film were only slightly exaggerated, at Downstage they are played as broadly as characters in a Carry On movie and with outlandish 60s costumes to underline the point, and even the gently confused Benjamin who doesn’t know what he wants to do in life is played by Julian Wilson as a pantomime klutz who wouldn’t have coped with secondary school let alone Harvard.

Moving through the play all on her own in an alcoholic daze and in another play altogether is Catherine Wilkin’s Mrs. Robinson. The boredom and the submerged intelligence of the rich, jaded LA wife, who once gave her 10 year-old daughter a bar tender’s guide for a birthday present, permeate her performance. This Mrs. Robinson is the centre of the play and it is through her we see the spiritual wasteland that Benjamin sees in the film version.

Catherine Wilkin, in short, breathes life into the character, giving Mrs. Robinson a reality and a pathos that are totally missing from the rest of the characters except for Elaine in the scene when mother and daughter get drunk after the revelation that Benjamin has been having an affair with her mother. In this scene Laurel Devinie’s performance as Elaine suddenly strikes gold too.

Overall, this Graduate left me with blurred vision.


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Play of two halves does deliver

Review by John Smythe 03rd Apr 2007

The book was a best-seller, the film epitomised the 1960s sexual revolution and made a star of Dustin Hoffman, then from the year 2000 Terry Johnson’s stage adaptation took the West End and Broadway by storm, grabbing headlines because of the stellar line-up of actresses and/or models flashing their boobs as Mrs Robinson. Coach parties flocked.

Well forget all that razzmatazz here. It’s the play you get in this Catherine Downes-directed Downstage production. Eventually. The second half especially delivers some inspired comedy and riveting drama as it throws up the age-old question: what the hell is love, really? What happens to it in marriage? With the Braddocks and Robinsons as role-models, no wonder the Baby Boomers rebelled.

Not that Benjamin Braddock (Julian Wilson) and Elaine Robinson (Laurel Devinie) are exactly flag-bearers for sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. But they do step out in a different and relatively risky direction. And while the parents epitomise materialistic middle class conservatism, two of them surprise us with their desires to see their children do better than merely conform.

When Ben declares he is running away from all that is grotesque at his graduation party, Mr Braddock (Alistair Browning) thrills at the thought of such liberty and adventure, revealing in the process an extraordinary depth of ignorance about the wider world. And at the end, the key that turns total impossibility into fresh opportunity is the jolt Mrs Robinson (Catherine Wilkin) gives – and gets – at the prospect of her compliant Elaine rebelling and even becoming her own person.

Not that Terry Johnson lets us off with a fanciful romantic ending. The spectre of the daughter becoming her mother turns the dream towards nightmare, briefly. And while the childlike simplicity of the final moment makes us smile, who knows what their future will bring.

For those who already know the story, perhaps the most interesting part of the first half is the way Nicole Cosgrove’s Californian kitsch set, dominated by a king-sized bed, is utilised to move the action from family home to hotel lobby to hotel room. Otherwise there are few surprises for the first 50 minutes.

The searing insights of yesteryear edge towards cliché now. It is the almost mute Mrs Braddock (Geraldine Brophy), consumed to the point of bewilderment by her role as wife and mother, who becomes the most intriguing character because she at least makes us want to know more, while the others serve themselves up on proverbial plates.

Speaking of which, when Mrs Robinson presents herself naked to Benjamin, the moment is fudged in a furtive scuttle amid very low light that still allows us to see that Wilkin is wearing a body stocking. While nervous embarrassment may be a valid reading that also avoids playing up to voyeurs, I cannot help but compare it with last year’s Centrepoint production. There Donagh Rees (and director Simon Ferry) delivered a brief but powerful moment of full-frontal bravery curdled with vulnerability.

Wilkins does demand we enquire, however, into Mrs R’s deeper feelings when Ben reveals he has been set up, by the bombastic Mr Robinson (Peter Hambleton), to date Elaine when she comes home on holiday from Berkley. And although too often I see the actor at work rather than the character in action, Wilson’s Ben does vacillate entertainingly between adolescent preoccupation with self and sex, and a quest for some larger horizon and deeper meaning in life.

Even so, the prevailing feel of most of the first half (on the first Monday performance at least) is of highly competent actors painting their characters in by numbers and this, I think, is how the play is written. Like the set, made to look like an impermanent film-set façade, and the fake cigarettes that still manage to glow and puff a little mist, this is the American Dream gone west.

It is when Elaine returns from ‘back East’ that real chemistry enters the picture. And again I can’t help but compare. At Centrepoint, Angela Green’s Elaine had shed her Californian shell and was well on the way to finding herself. At Downstage, Laurel Devine’s Elaine arrives still firmly rooted in California; a sort of ‘Berkley Barbie’ with a long way to go even though she can now say, "I hate nihilists." And this too is a perfectly valid reading, given Mrs R’s unwittingly challenging analysis of her daughter in the penultimate scene.

The ‘what the …?’ moment that finds Ben taking Elaine to a strip club and the impulsive kiss that interrupts her displeasure bring a promising lift to the first half by making us want to know what will happen next.

What drives the second half is the impact of truth-telling, both as a weapon and as a catalyst for moving on past the bullshit to something more real. It’s the scene that follows the big revelation that lifts the play to a whole new level. Elaine and her mother resort to the cocktail shaker and – beautifully rendered by Wilkin and Devinie – they embark on a surreal enquiry into the nature of love that seems to suggest, via Sinatra and those magical high notes, that once you’ve arrived, it’s over.

How can the inevitable rom-com ending be achieved in the face of such nihilism? How can Elaine possibly even contemplate, let alone have, a relationship with Benjamin after what he has done with her mother? Amid the continued commentary on the American way – the Braddocks’ visit to the Psychiatrist (Kali Kopae, who also plays the Stripper) is painfully funny – and in the process of confronting such obstacles as an angry but hurting Mr R (Hambleton nails it nicely), and Elaine heading for the altar with a medical student called Karl, the desired outcome is miraculously achieved.

And with a final image of Benjamin as cereal seducer and Elaine as his more knowing teacher, we are left to contemplate the faint possibility of some kind of happiness ever after. It is a play of two halves that does deliver in the end, despite a shortage of subtext and heartfelt pathos.

Footnote: Original novelist Charles Webb has written a sequel called Home School in which Benjamin and Elaine, disillusioned with the own educations, home school their children. But because the movie deal for The Graduate saw him relinquish all subsidiary rights, including sequel rights, it remains unpublished and is likely to remain so until after Webb’s death.


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