A dinner party can often be the catalyst for intrigue and conflict as personalities, lubricated by alcohol and rich food, spar, preen and provoke one another. Dysfunctional relationships are often revealed in such an intimate occasion, especially if the hostess has consciously engineered a guest list that is guaranteed to instigate emotional carnage. Such is the case of the venomous hostess in the Dinner, Black Swan’s latest production of Moira Buffini’s black satirical comedy.
On a night of thick fog, Paige (Tasma Walton) the bored, icy and caustic wife of Lars (Steve Turner) throws a dinner party to ostensibly celebrate Lars’ pop-philosophy book “Beyond Belief” becoming a best seller. Tellingly she has not read the book herself. She invites Wynne (Alison Van Reekan), a vegetarian artist who is clearly deeply in love with Lars; Hal (Greg McNeill), a distinguished microbiologist; and Hal’s new but seemingly mismatched wife Sian (Rebecca Davis), a bolshie, sexy TV newsreader. The uneven guest numbers caused by the absence of Wynne’s recently dumped lover are later evened out by Mike (Stuart Halusz), a van driver lost in the fog, who seeks the use of a telephone but gets invited to stay for dinner. The whole event is presided over by a menacingly efficient but silent waiter (Kenneth Ransom) who lurks in and out of the shadows throughout the play.
It is clear from the first course that the food is Paige’s weapon of choice to humiliate and offend Lars and the guests. The starter is Primordial Soup – “an onion, celeriac and parsnip base, with algae” – the main course Apocalypse of Lobster, which allows the guests to choose to boil the crustaceans alive (a source of great angst for vegetarian Wynne) or save them by placing them in a brine-filled garden pond. Dessert is Frozen Waste, which as the name suggests, is the blended contents of the kitchen bin with a dash of sugar. There are party games too that have been carefully selected to be personal and deeply confronting to the players. Without giving anything away, it is pretty clear from the start that the evening isn’t going to end well and the tension builds effectively towards a dramatic and nasty conclusion.
The setting is elegant minimalism with a Japanese motif of rice paper walls that barely manage to hold back the whiteness of the enveloping fog. This creates the sense that the ensemble is isolated from a real world that could seep in at any moment. The central focus is the dining table which constantly revolves like a Lazy-Susan so that the characters do not have their backs to the audience for too long and the clear perspex dining chairs allow an uninterrupted view of the actors from every angle. Creative lighting creates a fantastic cartoon quality to the silhouetted actors during the short breaks between acts. Striking costumes for the female cast have been created by an interesting collection of guest designers – lovers of the Fremantle-based Love in Tokyo will instantly recognise Wynne’s velvet dress and jacket.
The idea of a dinner from hell is hardly an original one and I wasn’t a huge fan of the script because it felt crowded with stereotypes. In spite of this, all the actors made the best of what they had to work with. Alison Van Reeken and Tasma Walton were standouts. Alison’s Wynne was energetic and credible, although her character was a disappointing archetype of a hippy-dippy greenie vegetarian and Tasma’s bearing and icy upper-class accent were superbly consistent. She put in a solid performance as the brittle wife who lives in the shadow of a patronising pseudo-intellectual husband played competently by Steve Turner.
The rapturous applause on opening night clearly indicate that the play will be a crowd-pleaser but I was left feeling ambivalent about this production, thinking that perhaps the crowd is too easily pleased.