Oxford University Press' MaDSoc has staged Moira Buffini's 2002 play Dinner in the huge Walton Street quad, its spacious lawns surrounded by plain, almost dour George IV-period ranges. The grassy sward is ordinarily interrupted only by a pair of noble copper beeches, but this week they are joined by a dusky pink screen before which stands a dinner table, draped in black and furnished with oddly cheap-looking chairs upon which our dinner guests will sit to feed.
Our hosts, woman of leisure Paige, smart in maroon velvet, and her philosophical novelist spouse Lars welcome their three friends plus an involuntary gatecrasher to fête the publication of his new novel, while an impassive hired waiter responds to their every call for food and drink. Our guests – a microbiologist, an artist and a well-known TV newsreader – form the expected disparate little group and the equally expected narrative arc unfolds: settling-in, displaying of personality, stating their case for the audience to invest its attention upon them. Old grudges are then aired, scores are settled, the evening air turns blue and – the sole surprise – a plot twist conceived out of love of mammon and hatred rings down the virtual-curtain.
Yet there are problems with all of these elements. The tone for a start: is Ms Buffini giving us a piece of psychological realism, as our bourgeois diners joust and then tear lumps out of the carapaces behind which they strive to conceal the more base elements of their nature? A social comedy? There are certainly plenty of good jokes ("Would you like to freshen up? I can lend you a pair of tights!"), though they noticeably dry up in the second half, and the repetitive use of 'fuck' and the c-word, even though there was some attempt to devote to the latter a measure of postmodern analysis, comes over as a bit poverty-stricken. Is the play a satire on philosophical and scientific quackery, given that Lars and scientist Hal glancingly discuss Nietzsche and at one moment debate the conflicting attractions of abandoning either thought or the sensual world? Or maybe a tart satire on the collision of middle- and working-class behaviour? Well, let's say a pot-pourri of all of these, but I missed the bitter glitter of the Danish psycho-drama Festen, seen at the Mathematical Institute 18 months ago. Nor can Ms Buffini aspire to match the high but pointed farce of Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party. I even thought that Buffini's brief Blavatsky's Tower which I saw in a student production last year at the Pilch Studio had as much to say in half the running time.
Director Rebecca Cope (who also plays celebrity newsreader Sian) told me she first directed the play in 2010. Outdoor drama settings, like filming on location, come with built-in difficulties to be overcome, not least that of audibility for the audience, and here at times the players struggled to get over their material, with one-liners being lost. I often found myself straining to catch whole exchanges of dialogue. The staging of a necessarily static dinner party is bound to be a challenge, with opportunities for movement likely to be at a premium, and the production took time to gel and get up a head of steam, with the actors early on strung out horizontally in front of the table, with spatial depth rather lacking. But I did enjoy how Buffini's clever use of food almost as a weapon, not to mention Paige's menu combinations and bizarre nomenclature, was at one point interpreted by our director to the sound of the trumpets of Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries, and the moments of high tension as well as the final plot-twist were exploited with vigour.
The cast of six (plus mute waiter) all demonstrated impressive ease in delivering the barbed script. Ben Rout's smug Lars built up a fine head of steam under provocation (to Paige: "You're a black hole; a centre of negativity") and he was matched by Sarah Randall's coiled-spring portrayal of his rancid wife and hostess. Calum Mitchell's biologist Hal displayed impressive verbal fluency in repartee, once asking of the gatecrasher: "What was your big break in the tea leaf trade?", and I enjoyed Sara Gardiner's easy charm as a quirky artist and something of a raisonneur, though I felt the development of her character was hampered by Buffini's decision to release background material about her so late on in the narrative. Chris Paul was a surprisingly persuasive van driver and would-be cod-philosopher, given that the character for me lacked plausibility, and Andrew Scully was the waiter, his saturninity extending to something of the sinister.