DINNER, Sydney Theatre Company at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, 15 September-28 October 2017. Photography by Brett Boardman: above - Brandon Burke and Caroline Brazier; below - Burke, Rebecca Massey, Brazier, Aleks Mikic and Claire Lovering; below again - Bruce Spence and Mikic
Moira Buffini’s play Dinner was first staged in 2002 at the Royal National Theatre Company in the Lyttelton Loft – their equivalent of Wharf 2 – before a West End run at Wyndham’s the following year. However, the play was considered only moderately successful by critics and its popularity was put down to fine actors led by the marvellous Harriet Walter.
Much the same can be said of the STC’s handsome production which is led from the front by Caroline Brazier. She is Paige, the hostess with the mostest, who is staging a perfect dinner party to celebrate the publication of husband Lars’ latest book, Beyond Belief. (Uh huh.)
Lars (Sean O’Shea) is aspiring to the same shelf of intellectual and popular celebrity as such Hi.Lit.Hots as Yuval Harari or Magdalena Grzebalkowska. His hotness is confirmed, albeit semi-unwittingly, by long-time fervid admirer and dinner guest, Wynne (Rebecca Massey) whose ill-disguised goo-goo eyes annoy Paige, but not nearly as much as her militant vegetarianism.
Also at the dinner are old friend Hal (Brandon Burke), an eminent scientist who didn’t quite win the Nobel Prize and his new trophy wife and star TV newsreader, Sian (Claire Lovering). They are overseen by the Waiter (Bruce Spence) whom Paige found on the internet through his eye-catching website.
Through a brief opening sequence that’s at once surreal, electrifying and believable, the scene is set for a black satire of great sophistication and wit. It’s dominated – rightly – by Caroline Brazier who lays out the territory with whip-smart panache and intense presence. She has the ability to be crazily funny while suggesting another level of heart and fragility waiting to emerge. She, like the above-mentioned Harriet Walter, is responsible for the production’s successes.
Initially, Dinner pokes wicked fun at the modern bourgeoisie for whom Nigella and Masterchef are religion. Paige serves an evil concoction of a first course she tells them is Primeval Soup – “onion, celeriac and parsnip base, with algae” – cooking in the sun for three weeks during which time she’s popped out to lovingly stir it every other day.
Similarly, the main course of Apocalypse of Lobster is a brilliant jibe at “real food” advocates, for whom the length of the grass their meat’s original owner nibbled is as important as which branch of the tree an olive is plucked from. In this instance a large live crustacean is plonked down in front of each diner and it’s their decision as to whether they dump it in a pot of boiling water or run it outside to the fish pond and salvation. First World problems writ large. And when the Waiter serves Wynne’s vegetarian dish – a large, raw and whole Savoy cabbage – Paige trills that “To prepare it in any way would be to spoil it,” which is at once hilariously true and utterly brutal.
Nevertheless, at approximately halfway through the play’s 100 uninterrupted minutes, Buffini runs out of acidic one-liners and ideas and Dinner begins to congeal into a merely tepid middle class comedy of bad manners. Even the arrival of a classic catalyst in the form of young Mike (Aleks Mikic), a delivery driver or burglar who’s run into the gatepost in the fog and wrecked his van, cannot re-inflate a once buoyant souffle.
The fog – trapping guests and interloper alike – is a clue to the true conventionality of the play. It’s no more or less than a device such as Agatha Christie or a lesser dramatist of the classes might have used seventy-some years ago to squeeze the moral and humorous pips from a situation. And the squeezing quickly reduces the comedy and the social satire to a pancake-like flatness as Dinner runs out of steam.
Director Imara Savage and designer Elizabeth Gadsby strive valiantly to ice over the cracks. Savage is an accomplished director of actors in comedy and she and the cast work wonders with their material, but it does let them down and there’s no getting away from that. And a couple of attempts at added laughs and distanciation via hapless stage crew only underline it.
Gadsby’s tightly contained setting of a luxe and formal dining room fronted by glass – boxing the action even more tightly than usual – is an interesting way of dealing with the Drama Theatre’s letterbox proscenium shape (lighting, including chandeliers, Damien Cooper). So too are the tantalising glimpses of other rooms and the “chef’s kitchen” so loved by real estate agents – these telegraph the sterile money, bleak luxury and rats’ maze of Paige’s life.
The change of pace and tone could be deliberate, given the way Dinner ends, but if that’s the case, then it is either too abrupt, too slow or just not sufficiently well constructed to carry both the opening and closing scenes. Nevertheless, as already mentioned, the performances are terrific and carry the night.
Caroline Brazier is simply spectacular. As her louche and lousy husband, Sean O’Shea’s lizard-like draping of his elegant bod over a chair is enhanced by bare ankles, loafers and linen jacket. Rebecca Massey’s saggy-soggy anxiety and earnest passive aggression are equally riotous. While Brandon Burke and Claire Lovering are an archetypal and amusing mismatch who would be welcome at any Coward or Ayckbourn dinner table. At the other end of the social scale, Bruce Spence is a fabulous silent presence while Aleks Mikic carries the weight of late entry into the action and his pivotal place with deceptive ease.
Dinner is a triumph of actors over ingredients. Recommended for anyone interested in seeing a great actor-comedienne at work: this is Caroline Brazier’s night and the company is the cherry on the cake.