Dinner (2 ½ stars)
Review by Laura Money
Picture an elegant dinner party with the finest table settings, glamorous outfits and private waiter-cum-butler in full tuxedo. Now consider that you have been hand-picked for the evening and forced to reveal your deepest thoughts and feelings – expose yourself at the merciless hands of the host. How much do you think you’d divulge? So begins Dinner by Moira Buffini. Originally performed in London’s National Theatre before transferring to the West End in 2003, Dinner made its Australian premiere in Melbourne 2004. Buffini takes the idea of the sadistic dinner party orchestrated by a manipulative host and runs with it – serving up inedible dishes that force her guests into making moral decisions and looking hard at their own lives.
The set is impressive. Walking into the Heath Ledger Theatre with its blonde wood and taupe surrounding all you can see on stage is a large glass ‘French window’ covering the stage in lieu of a curtain. It reflects the audience back to itself, almost deliberately, as if inviting them to see themselves in the character’s shoes as the drama unfolds. As the window retracts it reveals a stunning dining set – clear plastic chairs, a glass table and a dramatic bronze chandelier complete with hanging spoons. But what captures the audience’s attention is the display of affection being played out as two figures embrace passionately. They break off and it is revealed that Paige (Tasma Walton) is the hostess of a dinner party celebrating the success of her husband Lars’ (Steve Turner) pop-psychology book and is giving the waiter (Kenneth Ransom) extra special instructions.
It is clear that Paige and Lars’ marriage is in its death throes as they banter cattily back and forth at each other before the guests arrive. The guest list comprises of Wynne (Alison Van Reeken) an artist and hippy type who is quite obviously more than a friend to Lars, Hal (Greg McNeil) a microbiologist who has traded in his old wife for a younger model, Sian (Rebecca Davis) the younger model and newsreader with a seemingly heart of flint, and a mystery guest (Stuart Halusz) who shows up in the middle of the foggy evening. This seemingly eclectic mix of guests, have been brought together by the supposedly masterful Paige who seeks to manipulate them into revealing all their secrets whilst always maintaining the upper hand. The characters are, however, incredibly cliché. Wynne is an artist, a cyclist, a vegetarian, a humanitarian and every single ‘artsy’ quality there is. She speaks in irreverent tones when waxing lyrical about how life-affirming Lars’ book is for her. Hal is the emotionally detached scientist, dismissive of his wife’s intelligence, jolly and upper class to a T, even down to refusing to say the ‘f word’ and when conflict comes his way threatening to ‘f-ing box you, mate.’ Sian is the leggy, beautiful newsreader, accused of being only hired for her looks, she is everything a woman bored with her status should be – cold, rude, she smokes inside the house, she dismisses people with a wave of her hand and perpetuates a ‘kill or be killed’ attitude supposedly brought about by reporting on cluster bombs too often.
Lars and Paige are the final players before the mystery guest arrives and they are incredibly anachronistic. Their marriage is a sham by now, with both characters making pithy little digs at each other for being so different. Lars is the author with an air of moral superiority about him. He struts about the dining room and attempts to undermine Paige’s control over the dinner party and the hired help. He is a cliché Tony Robinson self-help type of intellectual who seemingly doesn’t take his own advice. Finally Paige is styled as the catty, manipulative and over the top snobby upper-class dinner party host who will happily spend thousands of pounds on hiring a waiter only to treat him like a common servant and dogsbody. This type of character has been seen too many times, and is predictable down to the elaborate red ball dress and smug looks when the guests reactions result in the chaos she so desired.
After establishing the characters, which doesn’t take long, and playing them out in a pantomime of cliché, the doorbell rings – it’s mystery guest time. Enter: Mike, the working class man who has the toffs up in arms as they are never sure if they can trust him. This character is probably the most original of them all, however it still relies on clichés such as the working class spirit, great sense of humour and even plays with the idea of being a bit dodgy. After joining the party the dynamic shifts but the audience is left asking whether his entry was planned all along. This is never fully answered but then again, the play itself leaves a lot unanswered. Paige’s manipulative attempts are anything but subtle. She serves unpalatable food – ‘primordial soup,’ live lobsters, and ‘frozen waste’ and attempts to stir up controversy by picking contentious topics of conversation for her guests. Her attitude towards vegetarians is cavalier and vulgar, yet it seems as though it has all been done before. The jokes fall short – Lars calling for a pizza, Mike pretending to case the joint, Wynne being over-sensitive and Sian being hyper-callous just don’t quite elevate the play to any hilarity, and there is a definite overuse of the ‘c-word.’
Dinner is a very safe play for Black Swan Theatre Company. On the back of the bold and dynamic work, Venus in Fur it is a disappointing effort. This is not overly surprising with Kate Cherry at the helm. Her previous directing roles for Black Swan have included the blockbuster works such as A Streetcar Named Desire and The Seagull, always with a drawcard cast member. Dinner appeals to a certain demographic which will definitely keep Black Swan’s subscribers happy, however, it fails to ignite that creative spark that they are known for.
Dinner by Black Swan Theatre Company is on at the State Theatre Centre WA from 14th – 29th March, tickets available via TICKETEK.