[Review:] DINNER THEATRE, The Bread and Roses Theatre, London.
Written by Laura May Price and directed by Beth Wilson, Dinner Theatre was recently staged at The Bread and Roses Theatre as part of the Camden Fringe. To book your tickets to any of the Fringe events, click here.
I have a mixed response to this performance. On one hand, it offers tremendous comedy, both in writing and through its excellent performers; and on the other, it offers more sincere and ‘serious’ content that is nowhere near as hitting or effective. As a comedy, then, this dramatic text is wonderful; as a political text, it fails to capture and inform.
I shall get some trivial notes out of the way first. There are moments when characters exit the 'living room' and enter the 'kitchen'. To portray this on stage, ‘exiting’ performers mime going through a doorway — when they remember to — and the remaining performers pretend to be having a conversation with one another ‘back in the living room’. These simultaneous scenes are incredibly untidy, with the remaining performers unable to decide whether to perform mute mime or to stage whisper amongst themselves. Mimed action is either incredibly distracting, as with the palm-readings, or simply incongruous with the text, as with Ethan Joseph Robert (playing Noah) and Sarah Wenban (playing Noah’s Grandmother, Frances) miming as though having an effortless and comfortable interaction, despite the fact that Noah is supposed to be feeling disconnected from and awkward around her throughout the text.
I would recommend the obvious: separate lighting states to differentiate the two scenes; dim the living room lighting when action takes place in the kitchen – or by the front door. Then, decide what performers are doing specifically throughout all miming scenes. These interactions should not be extemporised in any way whatsoever; otherwise, they appear sloppy, awkward and unrealistic. All aspects of the performance should be deliberate, thoughtful and, above all, coherent and legible. There is only so much palm-reading you can do before it naturally loses visual intrigue. And whilst it is clear that the miming performers do await specific cues from the ‘exited’ performers to guide their actions, these need to be a LOT more frequent than they currently are.
On the night I saw the performance, there were a few technical errors — a frequent issue amongst technicians of the Clapham Fringe at the moment, for some reason. Performers styled this out as best as they could, and I commend them for the manner in which naturalism was maintained, specifically in what I shall refer to as ‘the dancing scene’, wherein the music failed to come on in time. I commend Laura May Price (also playing Billie), in particular, for her quick thinking. Although I cannot be sure as to what actually led to the issue, I have two words: tech runs! Three, at least!
Now, on to more significant matters. I shall start with performativity. These performers are incredible, and I do not often get the chance to say this of an entire cast. From comedic timing to expressivity to credibility to vitality, these performers are talented, indeed! Any lack of naturalism originates from direction and the writing itself. Performers demonstrate a clear sense of character psychology and intent and focus their energy well into a fascinating physicality and facial expressivity, particularly Robert. A wonderful and dynamic cast!
I mentioned that there were issues concerning naturalism as far as direction and writing are concerned. With direction, I refer to these jarring moments of mime, for example, and other such instances where energy is allowed to drop or where directorial decisions mean that character intent seems noncommunicable or inconsistent. In regard to the written text, lack of naturalism originates from the deliberate [and effective] corniness of the writing itself or from its own inability to construct and typify natural speech where necessary.
What is most impressive about this cast is their clear sense of chemistry. Perhaps this speaks less of Iara Mario Brito Borges (playing Leah), particularly in regard to the rigid kiss she shares with Price, but, otherwise, all moments requiring clear physical affection are executed wonderfully. I refer to actions like the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it squeeze of the leg Robert gives Price; the tight hugs Price and Ross McShane (playing Ollie) go out of their way to share; or Robert placing his leg over McShane’s lap, upon which McShane then places his hand. A sense of intimacy and collectivity is certainly portrayed exquisitely in this performance in these ways.
However, portrayals of intimacy and lack thereof do bring me to the entrance of Noah’s Grandmother. Both in the written text and in performance, her entrance is entirely understated. The awkward hug Wenban shares with Robert is completely underplayed, she is quickly welcomed into the house and sat down, and initial conversations are certainly not overly positive but they are not negative, either. They are awkward, but only because the performers are overplaying this, with good direction, not because it is written in the text. And because it is not written in the text, there is only so much that performers can do to convince us.
Only chastising him for dropping out of education — and why writer Price has chosen to focus on this, I am not too sure — Noah’s Grandmother is actually quite a gentle and sweet character. She is accommodating, jokey, engaged with the other characters — she even dances with them! We certainly need more from her to feel that she is such a threat. We need constant castigation; negative, unwanted criticisms; refutals of everything any other character says. This is a comedy! This must be amped up, exaggerated!
This becomes quite a big issue when we consider that she also demonstrates no homophobic hostility. Whilst Noah recounts a few of his negative experiences regarding his grandmother’s ‘homophobia’, such as her opinions on ballet danseurs, we really get no sense of his grandmother’s homophobia ‘from the horse’s mouth’, so to speak, at all throughout the performance. We do get a short-lived outburst about non-binary pronouns but nothing at all when the other characters mention Stonewall, Pride or gay rights in general, just to name a few instances where her homophobia would definitely shine through if it truly existed at the level Noah describes.
In this way, any slight sense of ‘homophobia’ we do get does not really communicate Frances’s disgust with homosexuality; rather, with men who do not subscribe to traditional concepts of masculinity and manhood. Ultimately, this could be a form of homophobia, but it is a very nuanced one, as we are still not getting a great sense of her phobia of or views towards homosexuality specifically, as opposed to of and towards 'effeminate' or 'non-traditional' men. Her derisions better approximate transphobia than anything else. Perhaps writer Price was concerned about presenting a homophobic character, either out of fear of offending audience members or fear of disrupting the overall comedic feel of the performance — although, I should not think it was this latter, given the political material with which we are inundated [more on this below]. Whatever writer Price’s potential anxiety, Noah’s Grandmother being homophobic is the very reason this story can exist in the form that it does; we need to witness it for ourselves!
This is actually one of the reasons I find the ending to be so incredibly disappointing. It is easy to feel cheated when we are left with a cliffhanger as to how Noah’s Grandmother will actually react now that she is aware of his sexual orientation. As I wrote above, her response to this is supposed to be the very premise of the text. So, we do not get the typical happy ending comedy usually delivers us, and this is somewhat deflating.
However, a more significant factor leading to my disappointment is that by this point, we are not made to care what Noah’s grandmother actually thinks. With her aforementioned sweet demeanour and almost complete lack of prejudgements, the threat of how she might react is just not powerful enough to warrant this cliffhanger. This is especially true when we consider that throughout Robert’s final speech, Wenban actually remains either completely neutral or smiley, her facial expressions even leaning towards empathetic sometimes! It is quite clear her character is not as disgusted as one would imagine, then. So, why the cliffhanger? What could we possibly have left to ponder over as audience members, to worry about, to overthink, to imagine?
Another reason the ending is so poor is due to the political focus of the dramatic text. Ollie and Noah’s heart-to-hearts in the kitchen quickly turn into huge rants about representation in the media and the daily suffering we all experience as gay men, amongst many other suchlike subjects. We lose sight of Noah’s character, personality and psychology, and he quickly becomes an uninterrupted mouthpiece for the political opinions of the writer. His speech swiftly becomes an unchallenged and univocal lecture, uninterrupted by the other characters who have been waiting shockingly nonchalantly for over ten minutes for him to return with a mere recipe.
This political content, resonant though its reality is, seems rather pointless to me to include. That this performance can function as a comedy relies on the fact that its audience will already share the sociopolitical beliefs inherent to and expressed through the dramatic text. Its intended audience is chiefly a team of progressive LGTBT-allies or, indeed, members of the LGBT+ community, perhaps ‘millennials’, who celebrate their own homosexuality or the queerness of others. The intended audience would find this comedy funny because they share the exact same frustrations as Noah about “the older generation”, to which his grandmother would belong, and their principles. Thus, these political spiels rather ‘preach to the converted’, so to speak. They feel needless, ineffective. Inherently political, there is no need to politicise this comedy any further. Keep it light, amusing.
Most importantly, these scenes completely change the tone of the performance. I cannot stress how long these kitchen scenes are. The amount of time consumed by them allows us to 1) forget that this is even a comedy and not an average [and unimaginative] political play, and 2) lose any sense of pressure and imminency that the text has spent so long building up for us. More and more characters arriving at the door, an expanding web of lies, the imminent shunning from an important family member, all of this makes for a wonderful sense of climax, chaos, pressure…and all of it for nothing for these slow and heavy scenes. The first kitchen scene alone is ridiculously long, and then there is another just like it! I must recommend with emphasis that these two kitchen scenes be cut into one if they are to be included at all, and this includes when Noah and Ollie talk about the future of their relationship specifically. In fact, I would recommend having one [short!] scene, instead, that deals solely with them fixing their rocky relationship in the way that they do. Having two almost identical scenes allows content to become far too repetitive.
This is why I write that we simply are not made to care anymore about the opinions of his grandmother. Besides, we have already established that her opinion is meaningless because Noah has so many loving friends that he can call family, instead. The risks, which used to be high, given that his grandmother was the ‘only family he had left’, have now fallen too low. What is there to lose?
I shall end on a positive note by clarifying that areas that are meant to be funny certainly are hilarious. Writer Price has a wonderful comedic talent, and casting for this was perfectly executed. Definitely the right performers for these roles.