Review: Junk Theatre’s The Dinner Party

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As the audience filed into the Alec Clegg theatre they were confronted with a bleak view courtesy of writer and director George Manson. Dried leaves littered the stage floor, which had been transformed into a sparse post-apocalyptic dining room. A couple of wooden shelves lined the back wall, atop one of which sat a clock whose insistent ticking would go on to underpin much of the play’s pacing. At the centre sat John Chavasse—playing an old man, Jim—at an empty dining table staring out at the audience. The resultant effect was one of confrontation, contrast and tension; all themes explored to great comedic effect in Manson’s play.

One of the first things I noticed as I took my seat were Chavasse’s eyebrows. As Jim he was able to express a great range and depth of emotion with mere looks, and so was able to engage the audience with great ease. This paired with Anna Van Miert’s lively and charismatic entrance as Jim’s wife Valerie saw the play capture myself and the rest of the audience within moments of the initial dimming of lights. As Jim began to recount a long and meandering story, both actors did a superb job of maintaining their contrasting energies, in such a way as to steer the play away from a potential slow start.

Even though the play’s start was emotionally strong it sometimes fell into the trap of feeding the audience exposition regarding the wider in a way that felt a little unnatural. However, it was the chemistry and interactions between the old couple and their younger counterparts where the play really hit its stride. Much of the play’s action and tension comes from a “Dinner Party” the old couple throw for the younger one. Around one table and in a single act the two couples argue, fail to communicate with each other and themselves, and compete with one another for small social gains as the wider world outside stands in ruin.

The “absurdity” of this action is compounded by the younger characters Greg (played by Joe Woodley) and Fiona (played by Olivia Moon), as they engage in a tangled web of conversational ‘doublespeak’ with their older counterparts. Once again, the performances of these two actors complimented the writing effortlessly whilst also keeping the audience entertained. Woodley’s portrayal of Greg as soft spoken and highly mannered contrasted Miert’s hilarious boisterous personality. In much a similar way, Moon’s Fiona shot withering looks round the table to instill emotions in other characters in sharp contrast to how Jim used looks to express his own emotions. All the while these characters confuse and antagonise one another with obfuscated language that delights the audience and leaves them blind to what’s in front of them.

The success of this play then, lies in its doubling. The actors doubled themselves and each other in their contrasting performances, the formality of a “dinner party” is doubled up with a grim and absurd reality for comedic effect, and the characters’ attempts to socially dominate one another double up with their resultant inability to understand each other on a social level. Even the ever-present ticking of the clock doubles up with the looming threat of death, which in turn solidifies the tension that doubles with comedy to make the audience laugh even harder.

As the play drew to a close, one last doubling occurred in the disgusted yet greatly amused mood the audience left the theatre in. Once again, Junk Theatre has brought a thought provoking and highly entertaining play to Leeds, and there will without a doubt be many people keen to see what they do next.