Before I launch into why everyone must go to Dinner, let me preface this by saying how I’ve never wanted to leave the room so much during any play I’ve ever seen. (This is certainly accomplished enough to take that as positive criticism.) Moira Buffini has created a scintillating portrait of middle-class pretension gone wrong in a script which oozes poison, both literal and metaphorical. Paige – an obviously almost psychotically unhappy woman – invites a group of friends round for an evening of food and conversation, a night which begins to drip with venom from the entrance of the faceless, nameless waiter, to the exit of the final guest.
The play’s a delightful mix of hilarity and a painfully palpable tension, as gradually the masks that people wear in daily life are stripped off, to reveal deep wells of insecurity within. We get such characters as the detestable Lars (insightfully portrayed by Matt Gavan), husband of Paige, who’s just published a successful philosophical self-help guide. Lars, we’re told, was the “sole member of the ‘Nietzsche for Now’ society” at University, and the brilliantly witty dialogue seeks to force such ridiculousness right into the faces of the audience. Paige’s yuppy-fest is interrupted early in the evening by the arrival of Mike, a young man whose van has crashed into the nose (“beak”, corrects Paige) of a stone gargoyle outside the house. Upon the collective insistence of the party, Mike joins in, taking the space of the amusingly absent figure of Bob the MP, who refuses to join his lover (a boho artist) at the dinner because she’s painted a huge “purple” portrait of his genitals and entitled it ‘The Member for Camberwell Green’. Interested yet?
So. Paige serves us three-course chaos in the form of ‘Primordial Soup’. ‘Apocalypse of Lobster’ and ‘Frozen Waste’. Forcing your guests to choose between freeing their live lobster into a vat of brine outside, or throwing it into boiling water in the kitchen allows for moral dilemmas almost akin to the Saw films. Why should they have to choose? Haven’t they just come over for a good time? However, Paige aims for the utmost in emotional confusion and upheaval. The set is fairly basic, taking place in one room with the dining table as the main focal point, a table which begins to double up as a sort of sacrificial alter as the play progresses. Each character is subjected to Paige’s desire to reveal them for the “hollow and lost and alone” types they really are. Charlotte Mulliner, as the cause and simultaneous target of such carnage could afford to hold the stage a little more than she does, but her icy composure and timing are faultless. Bella Hammad as Wynne (artist) deserves special mention for her fabulous injections of comedy at times it’s needed most, capturing perfectly the quite adorable longing to be ‘working class’ when you’re anything but. Directors Robert Hoare Nairne and Anna Fox have made great use of a very well-chosen text – the casting in particular is excellent – and it was nice to see so much obvious enjoyment of their work while we watched. I should stress that – it’s immensely enjoyable, even if the uncomfortable realisations we see in this most unusual Dinner leave a bad, if very amused, taste in the mouth.