"What unfolds is an entertaining clash of egos that feels especially relevant to anyone with academic ambitions" Poster/ Margaux Cooper

It’s every humanities student’s worst nightmare: a supervisor who hates your ideas, hates your writing style, hates your attitude and your ambition. It’s the dilemma facing The Spiteful Landsman’s protagonist Haz (​​Joe Wolffe): a first year PHD student whose unorthodox take on his supervisor’s favourite author threatens to ruin his academic career before it has even begun.

When evidence of (fictional) author Graydon Brookfield’s classism comes to light, Haz believes that he might have the makings of a completely original take on his 1920s cult classic novel – a social realist work and the subject of a lot of literary scholarship, Land and Sea. His supervisor David, (Louis Henry), who is personally invested in making sure that Brookfield continues to be seen as a champion of working class people, has other ideas. What unfolds is an entertaining clash of egos that feels especially relevant to anyone with academic ambitions.

“It was lovely to see a set with such a specific, well-crafted aesthetic”

But this isn’t a show solely for literature lovers or Cambridge students. Dan Ward’s script is well-paced and intriguing enough to capture anyone in the audience, whether they care particularly about dead authors and the politics of academic publication, or not at all. The scripted is aided by its polished direction. It’s a play with a niche premise, but director Emma Gibson and assistant director Maddy Sanderson are up to the challenge. They carry off a well-paced, tight production that doesn’t drop the ball or lose its drive at any point.

The play’s unique atmosphere can partly be credited to its production value. Upon coming into the Corpus Playroom, the first thing that struck me was the time and care that had been put into setting the scene. Stage design is often swept under the rug in student productions- the bare bones of a set are hastily thrown together during the stressful tech-run before the first performance- so it was lovely to see a set with such a specific, well-crafted aesthetic. Green panelling of a kind that might be found in any academic’s office plastered the back walls. The stage was set with an old-fashioned desk, a red leather armchair and dark wooden chairs. Small details, like the narratively relevant writing on the chalkboard, really gave the show its own look, and in the close confines of the Corpus, the furniture made the usually ugly stage remarkably cosy. Set designer Iona Boyer should be credited for helping to give the production its ‘light academia’ flavour.

“Both actors pick up on the enormous egos of the characters”

The stand out performances came from Joe Wolffe as Haz and Louis Henry as David. Joe Wolffe’s take on the snarky, disaffected student was convincing. As the student’s surly ambition teeters towards egotism, Joe Wolffe’s performance grew in confidence and power. Meanwhile, Louis Henry played the conceited academic with sharpness and clarity. His character loafed imposingly about the stage, glaring down students and from behind narrow glasses. Both actors really picked up on the enormous egos of their characters, and accentuated the verve and personality of the script, which is full of enough literary references to keep any English undergraduate happy.

Rounding up the cast of characters are biology students Bobby and Donna, played with a lot of heart and warmth by Tony Bialek and Phoebe Hall, and Ruth (Sofya Brouleva), whose sexual relationship with her former supervisor (Vianca Shah) throws a wrench into the friendship group. Sofya Brouleva and Vianca Shah carry off their relationship with maturity and vulnerability. What could have been an uncomfortable or sensationalised part of the story was carried off quite gracefully.


Mountain View

Looking Good Dead review

It’s a charming production, and one that feels like it could probably only have been conceived in Cambridge. But the fraught student-supervisor relationship at its heart, for all its specificity to university life, is a clash of values and philosophies that will compel those outside of the Cambridge bubble.

The Spiteful Landsman plays at the Corpus Playroom at 9:30pm until Saturday 5th February 2022.