Bombarding the audience with an audiovisual assault of strings and flashing lights almost before they have sat down, Acorn Productions’ version of this darkly comic (or should that be comically dark?) dinner party begins with a stormy energy that sets the pace for an evening of sustained tension.
Despite having only one setting, sensitive direction from Anna Fox and Robert Nairn meant that there was enough movement to avoid a sense of stagnation, without creating the feeling that the cast were playing musical chairs, as the six guests and their waiter moved about the table during the course of the meal. Similarly, the widely divergent characters represented in what terrifyingly blunt hostess Paige (Charlotte Mulliner) calls her ‘interesting mix of guests’ could easily have ended up as camped up caricatures, but instead were played with a maturity and depth that belied the cast’s (sometimes difficult to ignore) youth.
I admit that I groaned inwardly when a ‘Working Class’ character, Mike (Alfred Enoch), was suddenly introduced to the fray, fearing that Moira Buffini, after providing a series of brilliantly awkward middle class mishaps, would spoil it all by providing a predictably down to earth foil to their affluent extravagance and host Lars’ (Will Hatcher) cringeworthy philosophical flights of fancy.
However, Enoch (whose astronomically inconsequential role in the Harry Potter films was inexplicably trumpeted as a major selling point in the marketing material), despite a somewhat dubious ‘generic common accent’, did a nice turn as the unwilling guest, delivering untempered comments and taunts with a studied impudence that contributed believably to the eventual boiling over of Hatcher’s super laid-back philosopher/guru Lars.
Another notable performance was that of Alice Pearse, who played artist, vegetarian and all-round hippy character Wynne with a beautiful mix of gormlessness, wounded innocence and a pinch of old fashioned British fairplay spirit thrown in for good measure. She evidently had a lot of fun with brilliant lines such as ‘Actually my parents were working class, I’m only middle class through education’ and in describing a certain four letter word as a ‘beautiful orchid’, but again, aided by Buffini’s writing, remained a believable person with real emotion rather than a cartoon character of a new-age victim.
Finally, Rhys Bevan provided the most believable performance as a forty-something as microbiologist Hal. Something about his slightly stiff movements, his grumpiness, his insecure leching (not to mention his beard) created the sense of a man in the midst of a midlife crisis. Bevan was also notable for his comic timing, something that was sometimes lacking in Mulliner’s valium monotone delivery and Hatcher’s langourous drawl.
If I had any complaints, they would relate more to the set and props than to acting and direction. Whilst the plain black of the table, chairs and background might be thought to emphasize the nihilism of Lars’ vacuous philosophy and the lives of his and Paige’s guests, the fact that parts of the plastic chairs showed through as the cast dislodged black cloths, the cheap plastic lobsters and the unconvincing violence (another show by the same company, Mojo, had spectacular stage effects and dressing) made me feel that these aspects had been overlooked.
That said, the performances were almost universally excellent, and I was pleasantly surprised that what at first seemed an example of a tired genre of writing managed to surprise and affect me, despite seeming to pile cliché after cliché in character, plot and thought. How many times has the need to live and seek goals been contrasted with the essential pointlessness of existence? Answers on a self addressed postcard please.
The balance between surrealism, observationally comic dialogue, impassioned speechmaking and dramatic tension was at times strange, which might lead a less sympathetic reviewer to dub it as a bit of a hatchet job. However, the sometimes incongruous mix of deep philosophical wrangling and petty details of characters’ sexual indiscretions struck me as entirely appropriate if neither was taken too much at face value, and Acorn Productions’ canny handling of a potentially risky play certainly left me wanting seconds.