Most people have been to an awkward dinner party or two, but the titular meal of Moira Buffini’s 2002 black comedy Dinner takes the cake. From the opening lines between our host Paige (Caroline Brazier) and the waiter she found on the Internet (Bruce Spence), the audience knows there is a twist coming – a surprise in store for both them and the dinner guests. But this doesn’t quite prepare anyone for the snowballing uncomfortableness that begins with the uneasily sarcastic relationship between Paige and husband Lars (Sean O’Shea) – whose new philosophy/self-help book, Beyond Belief, is the premise for the party – and builds to excruciating comic peaks.
Bruce Spence and Caroline Brazier in Sydney Theatre Company’s Production of Dinner © Brett Boardman
Buffini plays on the strict social codes and hypocrisy of an upper-class English dinner party, regularly wrong-footing the audience with a biting, darkly hilarious script. But within this, Paige is crafting her own performance, having assembled a carefully curated cast of guests: Hal (Brandon Burke), a scientist sporting a Ramones T-shirt; his glamorous newsreader wife Siân (played with light disdain by Claire Lovering); and Wynne (Rebecca Massey), a vegetarian erotic artist and university friend of Lars who has found strength in the nebulous ‘take control’ message of his book. Since Wynne has just broken up with her politician partner there’s an empty place at the table – which is soon filled by Mike (Aleks Mikić), a rough-around-the-edges van driver who has broken down outside in the thick fog that physically traps the guests as tightly as the social conventions that rob them of the ability to affect any kind of change. Mike’s down-to-earth candour serves to put up a mirror to his wealthy hosts.
Brandon Burke, Rebecca Massey, Caroline Brazier, Aleks Mikić and Claire Lovering in Sydney Theatre Company’s Dinner © Brett Boardman
Director Imara Savage and designer Elizabeth Gadsby create a contained, claustrophobic world, Paige and Lars’ ornate dining room – with concertina doors opening back onto a kitchen – displayed behind a floor to ceiling glass screen. Savage draws connections between the play and the dinner party films of surrealist Luis Buñuel – such as The Exterminating Angel and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie – the glass giving the action a slightly removed, filmic (or aquarium-like) quality that adds to the uneasy sense of reality. Casual seating changes evoke a sense of shifting camera angles throughout the meal.
Sean O’Shea in Sydney Theatre Company’s Production of Dinner © Brett Boardman
Reality is also distorted at moments by hazy pauses in which Max Lyandvert’s brooding soundtrack intrudes before time and conversation continue as if nothing happened. Other self-reflexive moments scattered throughout the evening playfully remind the audience that this is all a performance. While some of these effects serve to create a distance between the audience and action (and by slightly overplaying their hand detract rather than enhance the surreal aspects Buffini’s play), the escalating comedy and rising tension of the piece are handled masterfully.
Caroline Brazier in Sydney Theatre Company’s Dinner © Brett Boardman
The cast is excellent across the board, but it’s Brazier’s performance that really shines. She wields Paige’s razor sharp lines with deft precision and imperious scorn but there is also a sense her cruel games are as much to torture herself as her guests.
This is a dinner party to remember – the repartee is vicious, the parlour games wounding, and every dish is a not-so-veiled attack. And all the while the guests do their utmost to maintain decorum, the waiter serving quietly with the ominous patience of Chekhov’s gun.
Sydney Theatre Company’s Dinner is at the Sydney Opera House until October 28