The Waiter – Martin Bunyan
Paige – Emma Sweeney
Lars – Stevie Hughes
Wyn – Debbie Griffiths
Sian – Timmy Wright
Hal – Matthew Eades
Mike – Andrew Newbon

Bromley Little Theatre’s recent ‘In The Bar’ production, Moira Buffini’s Dinner, was no ‘chicken in a basket’. Indeed, there was nothing chicken about the uniformly solid performances and skilful direction. In addition, the decision to transform our normally cosy, welcoming bar into a claustrophobic, stifling dining room from which there was no escape was very impressive. The room was dominated by a large table dressed in red and set for what appeared to be a rather grand dinner. The gothic mirrors and red wallpaper suggested luxury and decadence and the dimmed lighting gave the whole room a somewhat unearthly feel. Very apt, given that Dinner is often described as ‘the dinner party from hell’. The mirrors were particularly effective – creating a sense of a world looking in on itself. I wished they had been hung at a slight tilt so that the reflections could have been more easily observed by the audience but a great idea nonetheless.

Society hostess Paige throws a dinner for her husband Lars to celebrate the success of his self-help book. The guests include artist Wynne, microbiologist Hal and his newsreader ‘babe’ wife, Sian. Later an unexpected guest, Mike – a van driver who has crashed in the fog arrives at the house looking for assistance. The hired waiter completes the ensemble.

We can lay bets from the outset that this is not going to be an evening filled with bonhomie. The assembled guests, with the exception of Mike, are far from pleasant people. They are a mismatched group of successful but superficial individuals who care little for each other and who are only too happy to trade sly verbal attacks.

So why on earth should they choose to spend an evening together? Perhaps the prospect of a wonderful meal swung it. Unfortunately for them, the surreal menu of Primordial Soup, Apocalypse of Lobster and a dessert of Frozen Waste is hardly comfort food.

It is, in fact, Paige’s last supper, and what might be a time for reconciliation, forgiveness and understanding has been planned to promote discord and humiliation. So not a bundle of laughs then as Saturday nights go. Or so you’d think. In fact, the laughs come thick and fast as the guests try to belittle, humiliate and outdo one another.

Paige, the orchestrator of the party was played by Emma Sweeney. From the moment she walked into her dining room, Emma controlled the stage. Her strong presence and controlled delivery were perfectly in keeping with a woman on a mission. She was like cut glass – classy and beautiful but dangerously sharp when broken.

Her husband Lars (Stevie Hughes), by contrast was laid back and smug. Stevie gave us just the right blend of suave and creepy. He skilfully conveyed the rather unsettling appeal characteristic of successful, confident men – shallow and arrogant but perversely attractive.

Artist Wynne (Debbie Griffiths) had indeed succumbed to his charms. She of all the characters was possibly the most sympathetic and Debbie brought natural warmth to the stage. Her comic first appearance and her bubbliness contrasted well with the tension created by the hosts in the first scene. Debbie captured perfectly the intensity and pseudo sincerity of the boho artist.

Microbiologist Hal on the other hand was an uptight, passive-aggressive type. Matthew Eades successfully brought the edginess of this character to life, engaging in totally ill-judged, social small talk which is so often toe-curlingly embarrassing, especially when at the expense of others; in this case his newsreader wife Sian (Timmy Wright), whom he describes as a ‘babe’ in an attempt to put her down under the guise of good-natured banter. This particular newsreader, however, may well have been a babe but she was no bimbo. She could certainly give as good as she got and Timmy played her with a beautifully understated, icy detachment and disdain.

Thank heavens for the arrival of the van driver … a blessed relief amongst so much nastiness. And Andrew Newbon was just that. He always brings so much energy and honesty to the stage and this performance was no exception. Like a blast of fresh air blowing away all the pretences and affectations of the other guests.

The waiter played by Martin Bunyan was a man of few (if any) words. He was both invisible and omnipresent; no mean feat for an actor. Even more impressive was his ability to create a sense of foreboding and discomfort … which indeed was the plan.

All in all, very well-judged performances, slick direction, great props, an atmospheric setting and sharp comic dialogue, capably delivered, resulted in a very enjoyable evening.

I have but one criticism and that is that the production didn’t focus more on the futility of the characters’ lives. Speaking in 2002, just after the play premiered at the National, Buffini said “Post-September 11, I felt I needed to write about a world out of joint. So I deliberately made the characters in Dinner intelligent, educated, liberal, selfish, miserable people, with a spiritual and moral vacuum at their heart. It’s a tragedy, really. There’s blood on the carpet. But I got away with it because it’s so bloody funny.” Well it is bloody funny but I think therein lies the problem. Too much weight was given to the wickedly funny lines at the expense of the misery of the disconnection in the characters’ world.

Buffini introduces elements of a world ‘out of joint’; the mismatched couples, the inedible dinner and the bizarre party games. Even more indicative of the writer’s intent is the hired waiter’s advertising slogan “Let me hold your coat and snicker” of which we are made aware within the opening few minutes. Taken from a line in T. S. Eliot’s poem The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock, Buffini is clearly stating her intent to follow in Eliot’s footsteps. “The tortured psyche of the prototypical modern man – overeducated, eloquent, neurotic, and emotionally stilted” is a quote often used to describe the main character in the poem and could equally describe Buffini’s dinner guests but whereas Prufrock is complex and compelling, Buffini’s characters can tilt towards caricature if the actors give the obvious reading.

On that note, it occurred to me that it might be interesting to see this play performed with more layers. With more subtle characterisation and less discernible animosity, the piece could have been even more shocking, the black comedy heightened and the disconnections at the heart of the play highlighted. All this whilst still providing what was ultimately a thoroughly entertaining night out.

– Caron Kehoe