Left – Jude Henshall. Cover – Elena Carapetis, Nathan Page, Rory Walker and Ellen Steele. Photos – Chris Herzfeld.
Tables set up in a pub-bistro; the ones at the back for those who are going to have a meal have a guarantee that occupants will be able to see the band when it starts – if, and it’s a big IF, the people in the front don’t stand up. On the back wall there’s an oh-so-outback print, red earth, red craggy rocks and a kangaroo.
There seems to be one waiter who we never see although he’s desperately wanted but is as elusive as the Scarlet Pimpernel. There’s a bleakness and ordinariness about the place that we, in our imaginations, will people as the evening wears on, except for two tables at one of which sits a middle aged solitary man obviously waiting for someone. That’s what this play, After Dinner a production of the State Theatre Company is about. Everyone is waiting for someone. The restaurant reflects their lives – bleak and ordinary – and the waiter whose attention they are desperate to catch is symbolic of them reaching out in their desperation to find something meaningful in their lives – someone who will share it with them. It is written as a comedy.
Gordon (Rory Walker), the man, looks about, peruses the huge menu, looks about some more, gives the picture his earnest attention, accidentally spills the salt, and shows interest in the ceiling. The audience titters. They’ve been there. After about 3 minutes when things have worn a bit thin, Dymphna (Jude Henshall) arrives at the next table and rearranges it to her liking. Dympie, bespectacled and colour-coordinated in bone, is everyone’s nightmare friend who regards herself as the epitome of taste – she chose the restaurant – and the setter of standards. We’ve already got the picture of her before she speaks. Paula (Ellen Steele) her good looking, sexy, heavily made-up work colleague arrives smartly dressed in a slinky, colourful outfit with a hood and quickly the pecking order is established. They argue about where they are sitting, about what each is wearing and eventually about the bill. They despair about the waiter – “They will do anything not to serve you”, says Dymphna – and discuss the one who is to join them. Dymphna has invited Monika (Elena Carapetis) because her husband died and she needs a nice night out to take her out of herself – or words to that effect. “It’s all that pent up emotion,” she says, “She’s pented it up for ages.” They learn from Gordon that he is waiting for two friends and comments that there’ll be three at each table. Ah, could it be a clue, a hint of what is to come?
Enter slightly drunk, going to get much drunker, Stephen (Nathan Page), good looking, cool in what look like knitted woollen trousers, his jacket sleeves rolled to the elbow, no socks and eagerly eyeing the women. He urges his companion to have a beer, although Gordon says he doesn’t drink. Gordon talks about his wife, Jane, who has left him. (One wonders why she didn’t do that years ago!) The women listen eagerly. Fragile, ready to cry at any moment, Monika erupts into the room and, bravely trying to hold back her tears, pours out her grief in a gruesome description of her husband’s death, then rushes to the toilet unable to control tears. “She needs 6 months in a hospital before she’s fixed up,” confides Dymphna. The men listen. Some time later Monika returns, soothed into maudlin garrulousness by some pills a sympathetic woman gave her in the loo. The third man stays a mystery. More drink from the bar. Booze they have. Food follows much later. Inhibitions are drowned and they talk and they listen, each table to the other.
The intention of the play is clear. It is to show the effects of loneliness and the need for a significant other. Only one of these people come out with a sense of independent self. The Director (Corey McMahon) says in his notes “If we hit the comedy too hard we risk commenting on the characters rather than empathising with them but if we allow the tragedy to take centre-stage, the play is no longer funny and that essential ingredient that gives us permission to identify with the characters, laughter, is missing.” There are premises there with which one may or may not agree but the fact is that I found the play grindingly slow at the beginning and not very funny at all. It wasn’t, to my mind, tragic either. All five performers are to be commended on their performances although Dymphna’s voice was unacceptably shrill and Stephen indistinct at times.
Each actor serves their character very well. My gripe is with the play itself. According to the programme notes by the author, Andrew Bovell, this 30 year old piece still has people laughing their heads off, falling out of their chairs with laughter and wetting their pants. None of those disconcerting things happened to me, nor I can vouch, did two of the reactions happen to any audience members I saw – and I was looking. It fell flat for me.
State Theatre Company South Australia presents
by Andrew Bovell
Director Corey McMahon
Venue: Dunstan Playhouse | King William Road, Adelaide SA
Dates: 7 – 29 April 2018
Tickets: $38 – $74
Bookings: 131246 | bass.net.au