Review: SPIDER, Riverside Studios

Part of Riverside Studios' Bitesize Festival, Jude Benning's play explores the cruel world of drama schools.

By: Feb. 23, 2024
Review: SPIDER, Riverside Studios
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Review: SPIDER, Riverside Studios The cruel world of drama schools is examined at close range in Spider, written and directed by Jude Benning and currently playing at Riverside Studios as part of their Bitesize Festival.

The cruelty itself is felt on two levels. Frank Dowling was once a famous method actor who is now known principally for playing the title role in the fictional West End hit Spider a couple of decades ago. Tortured by never building on that success, he now teaches at a London drama school with his half-dozen students all aiming to achieve the heights Frank reached and the long career he never had. 

Dowling, as a result, is a stern taskmaster who pushes and cajoles the class mercilessly with verbal taunts and strict treatment. As part of his unorthodox training methods, he takes them on a camping trip to Epping Forest where he splits his charges into two teams and has them hunt each other through the trees. Fate intervenes to make this a trip from which not all of them will return.

The play was first performed last year at South London Theatre with a cast of ten and a runtime of two hours. In its new format, the young cast is slightly reduced to eight and is now a punchy sixty minutes long which has more than a patina of authenticity; Benning herself graduated from Rose Bruford College in 2021 and how much of this work is autobiographical is unknown.

Benning’s character studies are solid albeit underwritten (possibly a casualty of having to cut the play’s length in half). With hefty nods to Whiplash and Full Metal Jacket, Jason Salmon plays the ever-demanding tutor Dowling with only a few slight pauses in the berating and baiting for some reflections and exposition. It’s a performance that is so over the top that it’s a small wonder that permission isn’t sought from air traffic control every time Salmon opens his mouth. Watching him rail against modern life is amusing but, with his tired rumblings about ADHD and iPhones, he pales next to the likes of Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden, Jeff Daniels’ Will McAvoy and Rami Malek’s Elliot Alderson.

The classmates are stereotypical but written with knowing charm. Calla Cambrey’s Nadine is a strident voice and the group’s unifying force who is hiding a secret from the others. Mitch (Henry Burt) missed out on going into the army so now approaches each situation head-on with military gusto. Erin (Scarlett Green) is what Alfred Hitchcock would have referred to as The Girl, the head-turning poster bait that attracts attention whether she likes it or not. Posh kid Oscar (Joe Gibson) strides around with a plummy accent and a pocket full of drugs. And so on and so forth.

Spider has all the air of a work in progress and one to keep an eye on. The actors do well to bring us into the story (especially its #MeToo strand) and, by the end, there’s some real engagement with the dark situation faced by this motley crew. There are some strong set pieces and twists and revelations which lead up to a redemption of sorts for Dowling but there are also occasions where the direction becomes baggy and the plot meanders. This latest version of Spider certainly has legs - where will it head to next?

Spider continues at Riverside Studios until 25 February.


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