Stage

After Dinner review (The Wharf, Sydney)

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For the first few minutes of Sydney Theatre Company’s new production of Andrew Bovell’s 1988 breakthrough play After Dinner, it looks likely this might be a night of simple, light-hearted ’80s nostalgia. And if that’s all you’re after, you’re sure to leave pleased. But there’s an underlying sophistication to every element in this production that makes it utterly pertinent today.
It’s 1988 and three co-workers, Paula (Anita Hegh), Dympie (Rebecca Massey) and Monika (Helen Thomson), have come out for a night at the local club. They’re here to see the band, but Dympie insists they show up early so they can secure a table with a good view of the action, but not so close to the action that it’ll be too noisy and they’ll have drinks spilt on them and bodies touching them. The only way is to have an early dinner at the club (one of those bizarre rules of RSL and Leagues clubs that its regulars seem to understand instinctively), which Dympie hopes will give them a chance to bond with newcomer Monika, who has just lost her husband.
At the next table is Gordon (Glenn Hazeldine) who has just been left by his wife. He’s waiting for two friends to show up for a night of male bonding. Brendan never does, but the seemingly cocky, confident Stephen (Josh McConville) is there to chase some skirt — not quite the night of long night of meaningful, supportive, emotionally raw conversation Gordon had in mind.
Of course, the two groups of single people are destined to come together and interpersonal tension boils over. Bovell has an almost Ayckbourn-esque set up for his middle class social comedy, but he takes it to surprising, riotous places.
It’s extraordinary to think that this is Bovell’s first play given how well he draws comedy from the tragic loneliness of these characters and captures a particular time and a place in Australia. It’s a microcosm of the ’80s, but larger political and social rumblings are keenly felt. There may be some structural unevenness (although it could be argued Bovell’s step away from a standard farcical build is refreshing) but the dialogue is assured and the comedic beats always fall exactly where they should. And there’s a blisteringly good, adventurous, imaginative monologue for Monika in the first act, topped off with the perfect one-liner. (It’s a one-worder, actually, and I won’t spoil it for you.)
The characters are so clearly defined and detailed they almost seem like archetypes — although you’ve actually never seen somebody exactly like them on a stage before — and they’re written with such compassion you want every one of them to succeed, even when they’re being absolutely awful.
That’s largely down to the perfectly-cast actors, who seem to all slide into their roles effortlessly. Glenn Hazeldine is perhaps the most consistently strong actor in Sydney, and he relishes Gordon’s most painful side, while Josh McConville is suitably sleazy as Stephen. McConville and Hazeldine play with the tiniest moments between them, drawing big laughs from the slightest gesture.
Rebecca Massey brings Dympie’s brittleness and insecurities to life with great sensitivity (and a great fringe), and Anita Hegh’s naive and hopeful Paula is heartbreaking.
But this production belongs to Helen Thomson as Monika. Thomson is a rare comedic talent and probably the best character actress currently working in Sydney. While she’s been nominated for quite a few awards, I think it’s time for a special Helen Thomson award, for giving us more belly laughs and making our sides ache more often than any other actor. Her comedy is always effective because it comes from emotional truth and is matched by her excellent technique.
Monika hasn’t gone out all that much in recent years — her husband much preferred nights in — and Thomson plays her revolution from uptight, to devastated, to riotous, with plenty of wit and heart. She also manages to make some slightly difficult, abrupt turns in her character feel smooth and completely logical.
Imara Savage’s directorial hand is rarely felt, which is actually a great strength in this production. Her work with the actors in the rehearsal room has clearly been brilliant — every gag is pitch perfect and the dynamics between the characters are spot-on. The direction, absolutely in service of the script, is matched by Alicia Clements’ design which is the most authentically ’80s to have been seen on Sydney stages in recent months (after Griffin’s Emerald City and Darlinghurst’s Daylight Saving).
After Dinner seemed like a bit of an odd programming decision from STC when it was announced last year, but it stands up more than 25 years after its premiere as a very good play from one of our greatest playwrights. And that’s reason enough to justify its inclusion. As a critic, you don’t often see a show you feel you can heartily recommend to anybody, knowing almost anybody will feel like it was a worthwhile way to spend an evening. This production is as down-to-earth and broadly crowd-pleasing as it is sophisticated and is superbly crafted with subtlety and nuance. You’re bound to love it.
[box]After Dinner is at Wharf 1 Theatre, Sydney until March 7. Featured image by Brett Boardman[/box]

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