Ramin Sabi’s The Tea Party will no doubt divide audiences into two camps: those who think it is a profound and harrowing vision of our absurd metaphysical condition, and those who think it’s pretentious drivel. I’d put myself firmly in the first camp.
The play centres around six not-quite-real, formally dressed characters trapped in an eternal hell of tea and banality. William, Charles, Duncan, Lucy, Victoria, and Lydia sit around sipping tea, pouring tea, talking about tea, and spouting inane but pleasant-sounding sentences (a number of which are to do with tea). Think Through the Looking Glass meets Importance of Being Earnest meets The Trial.
The Tea Party starts off feeling like a bizarre and disjointed dream, but as the characters ‘crack’ one by one and stop playing their parts in the grotesque comic saga of their existence, the play takes on an altogether more sinister vibe. Beneath the mindless chatter, there is a terrifying emptiness about which no one dare speak. Everyone but Lydia slowly realises the awful secret, and their collective anguish is eventually crystallised in William’s desperate cry of ‘why the fucking tea!’ Gradually the volume of the light-hearted inanity dies down, and we are left only with the haunting sounds of Lydia’s demonic cackle and the clinking of cups. I’m not sure what is more discomforting: the plain terror on the faces of the characters as they see for the first time the pointlessness of their lives, or the utter equanimity of Lydia, who seems completely dislocated from the world.
The script is a self-conscious homage to Oscar Wilde, with enough empty aphorisms and nonsensical witticisms to keep you scratching your head for days after. At one point Lord Duncan triumphantly declares that ‘up can indeed mean down’, whatever that means. Sabi’s dialogue is sharp and witty, although possibly a little too ‘after Wilde’ to be considered original. The monologues are a bit ranty and don’t enhance the drama very much. If anything, they get in the way of an otherwise neat script.
It is a testament to the quality of the cast that The Tea Party makes such a powerful impression with a sparse set and minimal directorial input. Indeed for most of the play the characters are seated, drinking tea and talking. William (Lloyd Houston), Victoria (Olivia Barber), Charles (Luke Prendergast), Lucy (Rosa Bennathan), Duncan (Matthew Turner), and Lydia (Rosalind Stone) do a tremendous job to conjure up a surreal but somehow convincing dynamic. Watching The Tea Party is like being in a nightmare – it is entirely believable (and scary) while it’s going on, and although you wake up and leave the theatre knowing it’s not real, the experience is nonetheless deeply disconcerting.
Some people who see this play will be of the opinion that, like a nightmare, it makes no sense when subject to close scrutiny. I think this response misses the point. The Tea Party isn’t meant to make sense, it is meant to give a chilling insight into the absurdity of the human condition, and to give the audience a few cheap laughs in the process