DESSERT - LONDON
DESSERT, Southwark Playhouse, London, 12 July-6 August 2017.
BY CAROLINE BAUM
In dinner party drama the single arena is intensified. The rhythms of conversation, the punctuation of small pauses for eating and drinking are human and relatable, no matter who you are.
When Oliver Cotton’s hugely appetising Dessert opens, the plates are being cleared away by Roger (Graham Turner), a somewhat shambolic cook/waiter at the opulent country home of Hugh Fenell (Michael Simkins) and his wife Gill (Alexandra Gilbreath). They have an American couple, old friends, visiting, and they are showing off slightly to them, their material smugness and satisfaction boosted by Hugh’s recent acquisition of a Renaissance portrait that could turn out to be very significant indeed, if its attribution can be established.
Right from the get-go there is a frisson, a fizz of tension, uncertainty and expectation in the air as the guests wait for Roger to return with dessert. Meanwhile the conversation is polished, light, superficial; good humoured banter with a touch of condescension, the kind of dialogue British dramatists excel at, demonstrating wit and acute consciousness of class and social status. Cotton nails it and the cast excel at its overlapping cadences and smart asides, on a properly elegant set (designer Rachel Stone, with lighting by Derek Anderson).
But suddenly the badinage of conspicuous consumption is interrupted by the shock arrival of Eddie (Stephen Hagan), an angry young army vet who hijacks dinner and puts the cosy soiree into lockdown. He has a case to make and has staged an elaborate coup so as to be heard. Dessert, it seems will have to wait.
Chekhov famously remarked that if you see a gun on the wall in act one, then it must go off in acts two or three. Cotton speeds the process up considerably with a shot being fired in act one.
In act two dessert has still not arrived but greed is the main dish on the menu. Eddie’s bitterness at the circumstances that have provoked his extreme measures will not be appeased by strawberries and cream. Cotton gives Eddie well-aimed rants and the best lines about the financial sector and its lack of accountability. Interspersed with the serious venting are a couple of unexpected moments of farce that offer comic relief and a welcome change of gear.
Overall, however, the production is often static and rarely allows director Trevor Nunn to demonstrate the great imaginative direction he is so renowned for. It is as if the canvas were too small for his talents. Instead, he focusses on taut delivery and timing. It’s not his fault that the characters, particularly the two wives, are somewhat undercooked and lacking in nuance, or that the text is a little repetitive. The play’s themes are substantial enough to keep the palate stimulated though, even while longing for the refreshing chill of sorbet or the darker complexity of chocolate mousse.
Dessert is like any sugar hit: it offers a rush of pleasure but the satisfaction is short lived. It is, however, a relevant and entertaining piece with a small cast, which could make it an attractive prospect for an Australian production. We too have a sweet tooth.