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A CurtainUp LondonLondon Review

Dinner Now Being Served at the Wyndham
By Brian Clover

The dinner party is the perfect dramatic arena: the intimate battleground of men and women, public and private, pretension and reality, passion and restraint. It is also the revenge location of choice, the place where Banquo, Titus Andronicus>and Timon of Athens triumph over their oppressors. The revenge is far subtler in the 1987 movie Babette's Feast and I have, perhaps mercifully, forgotten the title of that necessarily French movie where two men eat themselves to death. Sitcom writers have hunted the dinner party to the point of extinction. Advertisers love it too, for surely we're all suckers for that seductive mix of sophistication, glamour, flirtation and, with any luck, good food.

So Moira Buffini's Dinner, which transfers to the Wyndham's, is staking a bold claim in very crowded territory. Buffini makes it clear early on that revenge is the main dish on the menu, spiced with pungent allegory. We see from the programme that hostess Paige (played by Harriet Walter, whose star appeal may have swung the transfer from the National's Loft) will serve up Primordial Soup, Apocalypse of Lobster and Frozen Waste. So there's an author straining after universals here: our civilised evening is to be humbled by a cosmic timescale, the ubiquity of death and the perversity of consumer society. Similarly, the list of dinner guests - writer, artist, scientist, newsreader/"sexpot" - suggests divergent ways of interpreting the world. And all this before the play even starts. It's like stopping off for some fast food on the way to a feast.

Once assembled behind designer Rachel Blues' magnificent sweep of a table, the guests proceed to hurl ideas and insults at each other for an hour and a half like naughty little boys at a birthday party. Paige's husband Lars (played with invincibly bumptious intelligence by Nicholas Farrell) is the quintessential winner, following his own book's Nietzschean recipe for success. Artist Wynne is a curly-haired cycling hippy whose name is plainly ironic, and Lars really should know better than to eulogise her youthful charms in front of his wife. Genial loser scientist Hal's guilt is driving him apart from wife Sian, the newsreader, whose heart is even stonier than Paige's. Paige boasts to the literally gate-crashing Mike that she does not work, but has instead spent a life honing her uberbitch skills. Mike (the excellent Paul Kaye) is the working class yeast in this dough of middle class angst.

But does the loaf rise? Not for this reviewer: Moira Buffini can write a great play, but this isn't it. She needs to shake off the David Hare influence first. The ideas don't develop, the action doesn't the characters remain stubbornly two-dimensional. This is less a dinner party than a three-ring circus where a very able cast are made to jump through rather predictable hoops by Buffini and her director sister Fiona. However, there are laughs and shocks as they canter round and round and many will go just to relish Harriet Walter's striding across the stage, not to mention her voice, or timing with the verbal stiletto. Miss Walter's hair stylist, though not her dress designer, gets a well-deserved credit. Together they have helped to create an icon that stays in the memory.

NOTE: Since its appearance at the National, Dinner has had an extensive rewrite with significant changes to the end of the play. -- Lizzie Loveridge

Written by Moira Buffini
Directed by Fiona Buffini

Starring: Harriet Walter
With: Nicholas Farrell, Penny Downie, Adrian Lukis, Paul Kaye, Paul Sirr, Flora Montgomery
Designer: Rachel Blues
Lighting Designer: Mark Henderson
Sound Designer: Rich Walsh
Running time: One hour 45 minutes without an interval
Box Office: 0870 060 6633
Booking to 27th March 2004
Reviewed by Brian Clover 10th December 2003 performance at the Wundham's Theatre, Charing Cross Road, London WC2 (Tube Station: Leicester Square)

--- Original Review by Lizzie Loveridge ---
I didn't fuck the lobster
You Stupid Sad Old Man

-- Siân
Harriet Walter as Paige (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)
The Buffini sisters bring us a black comedy set in the elegant but superficial world of smart but extreme dinner parties. Moira is the author and Fiona the director of this acidly, witty piece simply entitled, like all those restaurants which now favour very short or one word names, Dinner.

Moira Buffini demonstrates that she has a sharp ear for the verbal antics of the English intelligensia at their most pretentious and ridiculous. "Science is the new Art!" says Wynne (Penny Downie), the guest and artist whose Member of Parliament boyfriend has dumped her after she exhibited an impressionistic painting of the member (and now I do not mean elected representative). "He said, Look at my balls; they are falling off. I said that's a dream like quality."

The setting is a dinner party for six in an affluent part of London. Paige (Harriet Walter) is the dominatrix hostess throwing the party in honour of her husband Lars' (Nicholas Farrell) publication of his latest book on the psychological apocalypse, an insight into what he calls psyche-drive. Sian describes the book as "a smorgasbord of syllogisms that ultimately ate itself." They are joined by artist and eroticist, heavily sincere Wynne (Penny Downie), Hal (Adrian Rawlins), "cutting edge germ scientist and his new wife, Siân (Catherine McCormack), sex pot and television newsbabe. Hal's first wife was Paige's friend and he understandably doesn't want to discuss her serial suicide attempts on crucial dates, like his second wedding day. Wynne is very attracted to Lars. Lars is planning to divorce Paige and thinks she is unaware of this. Paige has hired a sinister waiter (Christopher Ettridge) to serve the guests and bring about her carefully planned denouement. Into this party, stumbles Mike (Paul Rattray) working class boy and van driver, who may be a burglar, asking to use the telephone. It sounds quite like Joe Orton without the homosexual interest.

Memorable is the stomach churning menu for this dinner party: algae soup which has been cooking outside for three weeks until the green slime formed; live lobster which the guests have to decide either to release into the garden pond or put screaming into a boiling pot, and rounded off with frozen waste, some of the contents of Paige's dustbin (trashcan) added to sugar and frozen.

The whole set is quite claustrophobic. Rachel Blues' set has indigo walls, a fashionable curved table, white plates and each guest ends up with seven or eight glasses of alcohol. In between courses there is plink plonk music as the lights are dimmed, plates cleared and the next course arrives. The lighting emphasises the bright white plates and is quite dramatic. Oh, and yes, the lobsters are alive and moving.

The Loft has a very low ceiling and Harriet Walter is very tall and imposing in her red satin outfit and black helmet hair cut. She is a ruthless and bitchy hostess, as determined as the set of her chin. Nothing must interfere with her detailed plans for the macabre evening. It is a splendid performance from Ms Walter as the voracious, coldly calculating yet ultimately vulnerable and very unhappy woman.

Nicholas Farrell prevaricates as the flattered author and Penny Downie is a cringe making spreader of peace and love, and freedom for shellfish. Catherine McCormack amazingly re-invents herself with every role so as to be unrecognisable each time. Here she is the young, trophy wife who lets drink get the better of her so that her marital problems are aired over dinner. "I'm your wife, you lucky cunt," she tells Hal. The mealy mouthed Wynne retorts, "Look I'm sorry but, please, cunt is an orchid, a moist purse, it's the apex of eroticism, not an expletive".

Some of the one liners are of the very, very best. Paige and Lars verbally spar with each other and the ghastly Wynne spreads her veggie, hippie, free love philosophy everywhere. The play starts very well with lots of laughter but somehow the ending failed for me to live up to its early promise. It seems to go downhill when they start to play after dinner games and Siân's task is to list murder weapons. I don't think I ever believed in these people and so didn't care what became of them. It starts as a very funny dream and ends in tragedy which is awkward and uncomfortable rather than painful.

Written by Moira Buffini
Directed by Fiona Buffini

Starring: Harriet Walter and Catherine McCormack
With: Nicholas Farrell, Penny Downie, Adrian Rawlins, Paul Rattray, Christopher Ettridge
Designer: Rachel Blues
Lighting Designer: Pete Bull
Sound Designer: Rich Walsh
Running time: Two hours ten minutes without an interval
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to 14th December 2002
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 19th November 2002 performance at the Loft at the National Theatre Lyttelton, Upper Ground, South Bank, London SE1 (Tube Station: Waterloo)
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