Saturday night was the first preview of the Moira Buffini black comedy Dinner starring Rebecca Davis, Stuart Halusz, Greg McNeill, Kenneth Ransom, Steve Turner, Alison Van Reeken and Tasma Walton and directed by Kate Cherry. It is the tale of the dinner party from hell as hostess Paige (Walton) celebrates the successful release of her husband’s self-help book with a few select friends.
It quickly turns out that Paige and her spouse Lars (Steve Turner) aren’t exactly the happiest of couples as they await the arrival of artist Wynne (Van Reeken) and her politician beau Bob (a no show due to a breakup prompted by an unfortunate Wynne portrait); and Sian (Davis), the jaded “sexpot” newsreader, and her older husband, microbiologist Hal (McNeill) on a foggy English evening. An imposing waiter (Ransom), especially hired for the evening, has explicit instructions as he silently goes about his work. Paige is put out by Wynne’s solo arrival as everything has been carefully planned. A further spanner is thrown into the works when Mike (Halusz) turns up asking to use a telephone after having an accident due to the fog.
What follows is a bout of verbal sparring as the bitchy Paige serves increasingly ridiculous dishes seemingly designed to humiliate her guests and husband. Mike’s arrival adds a new dynamic as his real purpose for being there is revealed and he is decidedly not of the usual ilk these people would associate with. A further trial is introduced as Paige insists on a game to be played whereby she asks each person in turn to spend two minutes talking to a subject she has placed in separate envelopes. It all ends in tragedy as twists and revelations come to the fore.
While the plot is really no more than an excuse to put various character types in close proximity and watch them dangle, there are some genuinely funny moments here. Walton, resplendent in a figure hugging designer gown, is all tightly wound vitriol as she prods and torments and abuses all and sundry. Davis, elegant and leggy in another designer dress, is blunt and aloof as Sian amusingly speaks her mind without any kind of filter or care for others’ judgements. Turner gives Lars a certain self-satisfied smugness with all the self-help mumbo-jumbo a counterpoint to Paige’s venom. He portrays the husband’s increasing annoyance and frustration with her more as a slow fuse than outright explosion.
Van Reeken’s Wynne who is in love with Lars is the sort of new age, vegetarian, earth mother artist who despises the C word (which gets quite the work out) that would rile any dinner guest after a while. McNeill’s Hal is accomplished but unhappy even with a new trophy wife. Paige’s attacks on him, particularly in reference to his first wife and love of his life, are most cruel. Then there’s Mike who is a necessary wildcard to proceedings and a catalyst for further mischief. Halusz initially plays him as the straightforward working class man who has stumbled into something out of his usual reckoning but slowly becomes cockier as he takes stock of who he’s up against. That he forms an alliance of sorts with Paige is most subversive.
The dinner table is set on a revolving platform that is always in motion as the meals are served which allows us to see all of the actors’ expressions and reactions as scenes progress. The table itself and chairs are see-through plastic to help with visibility in what otherwise could have been a static and visually awkward presentation. I especially liked the use of smoke effects to depict the fog whenever the outside door was opened as various characters escaped for a breather or to liberate misfortunate crustaceans. Indeed the ‘live lobsters’ were a fascinatingly dark comic moment.
There were points the pace flagged – notably when the two minute discussions switched to Lars and Wynne’s back story. Other characters became mere spectators especially the up-to-that-point talkative Mike so it felt a little artificial and also a curious sequence in that it seemed to favour Lars instead of belittle him. Given the ending (which, for mine, was telegraphed anyway), I also didn’t quite understand what Paige’s real intentions were in the various ‘movements’ of the dinner. The Mike character ultimately felt like a device as the writing seemed to vacillate about who and what he really was depending on the situation.
However, if you like your comedy jet black and your insults like a dagger to the heart you’ll enjoy Dinner with its absurdist culinary delights and vitriolic dialogue. There are two more previews on Monday and Tuesday with the show opening on Wednesday 18th March and running until 29 March.