The Theatreguide.London Review
Moira Buffini's black comedy, first seen at the National Theatre last year, proves not as funny as it wants to be, not as black as it wants to be, not as clever, witty, deep, philosophical, social-critical or shocking. It is second-rate in almost every way, with the possible exception of some of the performances.
Now, second-rate does not mean bad. It just means that you will almost certainly have seen better. But if you're willing to settle for less, you might get some mild enjoyment out of this.
It's another in the long tradition of dinner-party-from-hell plays. The affluent couple played by Harriet Walter and Nicholas Farrell have invited some friends to celebrate the publication of his new book, a 'You're OK so screw everyone else' pop psychology potboiler, and to show off her one noticeable talent, that of being a hostess.
Within seconds, though, it is made clear that there is a lot of barely-suppressed anger between them, so we settle in for what will obviously be an evening of catty sniping and backbiting, and there are few surprises.
The guests include an overage hippie artist (Penny Downie) who is an ex- and potentially future lover of the host, a vague and gormless scientist (Adrian Lukis), and his trophy second wife (Flora Montgomery), a cold and brittle TV newsreader. There is also a silent waiter (Paul Sirr) from whom, it is telegraphed in the opening moments, we are to expect something sinister sooner or later.
The absence of the hippie's date leaves the table uneven until a van driver (Paul Kaye) comes to the door asking to phone for a tow truck and is drawn into the party as a potential pawn in the various power games. And what follows is, for the most part, predictable.
As the hostess serves courses designed to be as repulsive as possible, masks slip and everyone's contempt for everyone else becomes open and more vicious. When vitriolic imaginations begin to flag, she forces a 'One Minute Please' type game on them, assigning each a topic designed to be as painful and self-exposing as possible. And finally the waiter is permitted the shock ending that most will have seen coming long in advance.
The problem is that we've seen all this before, and done much better. The wit rarely rises above references to primordial soup and just desserts, and I first heard the deprived/depraved joke in West Side Story in 1959. The scientist-newsreader couple are woefully underwritten, with their personalities, motivations and emotions barely made clear; and the van man who turns out to be able to hold his own in this bitchy company is a cliche.
Fiona Buffini directs without any snap or pacing, so there is too much time between verbal zingers, long enough for us to notice how very uninteresting these people really are. Designer Rachel Blues, faced with the real problem of putting a table onstage and still letting us see everyone, has come up with a narrow, curved construction that might work in a boardroom but is as unbelievable as a dining table as it is ugly.
Harriet Walter captures the near-madness of the hostess barely balancing her anger against her control-freak nature, the only problem being that the play and direction make her show us all of this in the first few moments, so that she has no place to go except keep repeating herself for the rest of the evening.
Nicholas Farrell gives the host a nice sardonic quality that hints at more going on inside him than we ever actually see. The others do their best with the little they're given.
Edward Albee did the get-the-guests bit infinitely better in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? forty years ago, and Yasmina Reza did dinner-party-from-hell better in 3X3 four years ago. Tom Stoppard can be wittier than this in his sleep, and Alan Ayckbourn has done the angst-hidden-beneath-middle-class-comfort thing better in every play he's written.
As I said, it's not so much what's wrong with this play as that what's best about it is all so second-rate.
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Review - Dinner - Wyndham's 2003