Bella Hammad’s entrance, two minutes into the preview, won me over to this production. She rushes in and the piece sparkles to life with a tirade about her dreadful journey through the fog, and a hilarious account of her husband’s affair with ‘Pam’. Laughing out loud does rather undermine the supposedly intimidating status of the reviewer, but it was impossible not to, and the rest of the production followed in style.
On the face of it, Moira Buffini’s Dinner seems like a standard ‘dinner party’ play: Paige (Charlotte Mulliner) is holding a small party in honour of the success of husband Lars’s (Matt Gavan) new book, a neo- philosophical self-help guide. The guests are an amusingly odd assortment: a bohemian erotic artist Wynne, whose husband Bob has left her since she painted a portrait of his genitals, and the newly- weds Sian and Hal (a ‘newsbabe’ and microbiologist). They are later joined unexpectedly by a young thief, Mike. And comedy ensues. A witty script and eccentric characters in a social setting always make for entertainment.
But even the opening alerts us to the fact that this is going to be a bit different. The play opens with Paige telling a statuesque waiter, played unnervingly by Jean-Patrick Vieu in total silence, to follow the instructions she has given him to the letter – providing in the process a sinister framework for what is to come. She then proceeds to kiss him passionately – without him responding – and sets the tone for the entire evening, which is both Paige’s ‘design’, and frankly, weird.
What follows is a starter of ‘Primordial Soup’ (an inedible mix of soup and algae), ‘Apocalypse of Lobster’ (the guests must choose whether to free or kill their main course), and ‘Frozen Waste’ dessert (literally frozen garbage). Between courses the guests are expected to play a game which requires them to talk on specially selected subjects placed in envelopes, such as “suicide attempts”, which spark conflict and a series of dramatic revelations, including divorce, pregnancy, and robbery. We start to see the more emotional motivations behind sarky Paige’s orchestrated evening in a poignant moment when for her topic she asks Lars to get the ‘envelope’ he received a month previously, and Mulliner’s composure breaks down.
What struck me most about the production was its energy. The pace was snappy, it never dragged, and the actors genuinely looked like they were having a whale of a time. The relationships between characters are constantly being developed even when the focus isn’t on them; Sian (Chloe Wicks) and Hal (Rhys Bevan) said little in the scenes I was shown in comparison to some others, but the tension between them was clear throughout, and made their outburst not entirely unexpected. Even when moments of seriousness are defused with comedy, it does not undermine the issues being highlighted. Lars’s book is the basis of the dinner party, but its philosophy is also used to underline the party’s futility.
From a visual point of view, directors Rob Hoare Nairne and Anna Fox explain that they are trying to break away from the “twee” dinner party theme with a specially made trapezium-shaped table to give the audience a perspective of the guests. This will be added to by the theme of black, white and ‘metal’, with square plates and spirits instead of wine, and accompanied by a DJ remix of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. None of that can disguise that it is a dinner party themed play. But it doesn’t matter in the slightest – I could not recommend more that everyone who can should go and watch this – even if you’re not a regular play-goer. It’s well-acted, very funny and has a “huge twist” at the end which Anna Fox frustratingly refused to reveal, but which I will certainly be going to discover.