Reviews, Stage, Theatre

Dinner review (Sydney Theatre Company, Sydney Opera House)

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It’s completely fair to say that most upper-middle class “dinner party from hell” comedies are a dime a dozen.

The social tensions that arise from the ritual of coming together for a meal have provided inspiration for some of the best drama written for the stage for several hundreds of year. But there are just so many plays along these lines, and many are quite forgettable.

British writer Moira Buffini’s 2002 play, titled simply Dinner, takes those tensions, and the explosive “I can’t believe she just said that” moments of the genre and pushes them to the nth degree. The comedy is pitch black, and the insults traded back and forth are devastatingly cruel.

Buffini exposes the kind of barbarity and all-consuming destructive behaviour that can result from bourgeoise boredom.

Our host for the evening is Paige (Caroline Brazier), whose dinner parties have become famous among the unofficial aristocracy. This particular dinner is being thrown in honour of her husband Lars’ (Sean O’Shea) new book — which she hasn’t read, and doesn’t intend to read — Beyond Belief.

But one of Paige’s guests has devoured the book and all of its popular philosophy. That guest is Wynne (Rebecca Massey), a staunch vegetarian artist who had a passionate romance with Lars in her university days. She’s recently split from her partner and is newly enamoured with her old flame after being reacquainted with his apparently brilliant mind through his writing.

Paige is immediately annoyed by Wynne’s fawning over Lars, but even more annoyed that her perfectly planned party will no longer have even numbers as Wynne didn’t think to call ahead and advise that she’d very recently had her heart broken.

Paige’s other guests are Hal (Brandon Burke), a successful scientist, and Sian (Claire Lovering), Hal’s much younger wife, who is a celebrity newsreader.

“Are we peering into some kind of fish tank? Are we being kept at a deliberate distance?”

Paige has prepared a meal designed to “confound” her guests, starting with “Primordial Soup” and ending with “Frozen Waste”. These courses are served up by a silent waiter (Bruce Spence), who Paige found on the internet.

But the pièce de résistance is the main: “Apocalypse of Lobster”, which requires each guest to decide what they’ll do with the live crustacean served up in front of them. Will they take it to the kitchen, and drop it headfirst into a pot of boiling water, hearing it clatter against stainless steel as it slowly dies, or will they take it outside and set it free in the pond?

Buffini has written quite a few excellent gags and some sharp, sparkling dialogue. But like the people she’s poking fun at, it’s more a case of style over substance. The play’s dramatic twists are frequently unearned, and despite this production’s best efforts, it eventually becomes a bit relentless in its desire to impress the audience with savagery.

Director Imara Savage and designer Elizabeth Gadsby have created an arch and highly stylised production that matches and frequently lifts Buffini’s writing. The action all unfolds in a gorgeously acquainted dining room — with glimpses of a kitchen — set behind a glass wall. Are we peering into some kind of fish tank? Are we being kept at a deliberate distance? Or is the glass a metaphorical window erected by Paige so that we can bear witness to the evening she’s prepared?

“The performances are all excellent, led by Brazier, who finds all of Paige’s sophistication and venom”

Composer Max Lyandvert provides a surreal soundscape that occasionally deliberately clashes with the actions and the rhythms on stage, and subverts the audience’s perceptions of the situation.

The performances are all excellent, led by Brazier, who finds all of Paige’s sophistication and venom, and seems perfectly at home in this world. I’m not sure her character arc makes complete sense, but that feels more a fault of the writing than performance.

Rebecca Massey makes Wynne wonderfully insufferable as she comes under attack from Paige, while Sean O’Shea’s Lars is a little too confidently suave for his own good. Brandon Burke and Claire Lovering both deliver well-anchored performances as a rather odd couple.

Aleks Mikic plays Mike, an unexpected young visitor who shakes up the order of the night, and is the only character on stage with any real sense of self-awareness or insight into the hypocrisies and absurdities of this situation.

And then there’s Bruce Spence, who appears as a silent but imposing waiter, with very specific instructions from Paige that are only revealed in the play’s final moments.

Dinner is an entertaining enough diversion, and gorgeously executed, but it never really becomes more than just that: a diversion. It’s the type of show that you could call a “fun night out”, but it’s difficult to imagine it will lodge itself firmly into the memory of any audience member.

Still, this company and creative team have created something that’s engaging and thoughtful. I just wonder what they might’ve done with more substantial material.

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[box]Dinner is at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, until October 28.

Featured image by Brett Boardman[/box]

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