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The Theatreguide.London Review

The Cocktail Party
Print Room at the Coronet Theatre   Autumn 2015

Be wary of poets writing plays. The Cocktail Party is of literary importance because it is by T. S. Eliot and addresses serious moral and philosophical questions with poetic intensity and eloquence.

But heavens, is it talky! And static, and untheatrical, and sometimes too deep and complex in its thinking for an audience to follow. And talky. 

To be fair, the play is about something, an expression of the playwright's thoughts which, incidentally, you may find it difficult to agree with, but that is incidental on how to live the lives we've been given. 

And that subject does eventually become as dramatic as it is intellectually stimulating. But it takes the play a while to reach that point, and it can be a pretty heavy slog getting there. 

The titular party is being given in the play's opening scene by Edward in the absence of his wife Lavinia. The guests include an airheaded chatterbox of an old lady, a terminally boring civil servant, an idle and dilettantish young woman, a boy in love with her, and a stranger, the guest of one of the guests. 

Tiny spoiler alert: Edward's wife has left him. And when the others have gone, the stranger is suddenly given to gnomic comments about how reaching rock bottom may be good for Edward, since it will free him from a lot of illusions about himself. 

In Act Two (another small spoiler here) the stranger turns out to be a doctor or counsellor of some sort, enlisted by some of the people we've met to help Edward, Lavinia and the girl Celia through crises they themselves are not fully aware of. 

And here is where you may find yourself parting philosophical company with Eliot, because the doctor preaches a gospel of predetermination and acceptance of one's destiny, even if that means just trying to make the best of the bad hand you've been dealt. 

His advice to the married couple is an extension of what he began with Edward if they are indeed incapable of loving each other or accepting love, that emptiness itself may be a bond between them, and giving up any fantasy of anything better might bring them peace. 

(Faint alarm bells ringing somewhere in your memory? This is essentially the same doctrine the character Hickey preaches in Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, though O'Neill ultimately rejects it.)

In Celia the doctor sees, and guides her to see in herself, something different, an unexpected deepness of character that points her toward greater things, and later in the play we will learn just what form her transcendence takes. 

You can see what I mean about this being almost more than an audience can absorb, and requiring a lot more talk than action. 

The challenge facing director Abbey Wright and her cast is to make all this real and involving in human terms and not just a philosophical treatise. And while they fight their way to a weak draw in the first act, it isn't really until the second half that the play comes alive onstage. 

The strongest performance in Act One doesn't come from any of the principals, but from Marcia Warren as the dotty old lady, the actress finding both humour and unexpected colours in the character I had never sensed in the text. And when the woman later proves to be considerably less airheaded than she seemed, Warren navigates the change in our perception adroitly. 

The other outstanding performance comes in a second act scene when Chloe Pirrie lets Celia discover as we watch that she is deeper and more feeling than she ever suspected, and to adjust with grace and courage to the new sense of herself. 

But Richard Dempsey as Edward and Helen Bradbury as Lavinia are even more wooden and lifeless than their characters, giving us nothing to identify with or feel for in the play's central figures. 

And it is not just the knowledge that Alec Guinness first played the mysterious stranger in 1949 that makes it difficult to see much more than an able Guinness impersonation in Hilton McRae's performance in the role here.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Cocktail Party - Print Room  2015

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