The dinner party from hell is a toothsome dramatic staple. Between the nibbles and the brandies, what scope there is for practising the arts of prandial persecution. Premiered a year ago in the short-lived Lyttelton Loft, Moira Buffini's blackly hilarious Dinner makes you feel that the guests in Abigail's Party were pampered. With the play transferring, at long last, to the West End, we are now invited to a second sitting at this macabre feast. Certain ingredients have changed: some parts have been recast, and the ending is different. Does Buffini's repast retain its distinctive tang?
The evening still belongs to the glorious Harriet Walter whose rich-bitch of a hostess, Paige, could reduce even Bette Davis to quivering meekness with her suave, lethally-timed put-downs. Swathed in scarlet silk, Walter is a miracle of glacial aplomb and suicidal sadness. She is paying the inscrutable hired waiter £25,000 for this gig, so we know that somebody's blood will be on the carpet before carriages are called. The question is whose.
The dinner is purportedly to celebrate the success of Beyond Belief, the new best-selling guide-book to life by her odiously phoney husband Lars (a spot-on Nicholas Farrell). But it's clear that Paige is more indebted to the Surrealist Cookbook than How To Be A Domestic Goddess as the guests gag their way through Primordial Soup (algae with a dash of sulphur) and Apocalypse of Lobster, which, in requiring the diners to either boil alive or free the creature, is Paige's way of satirising her husband's sub-Nietzschean doctrine that each of us should be the god of our own universe.
Expert acting once again compensates for the fact that all the guests are merely types (celebrity news babe, shifty microbiologist etc), especially Penny Downie's delicious performance as a desperately earnest artist and vegetarian who has the hots for Lars, while still, of course, in her continual contortions of political correctness, professing herself equally attracted to women. This time, though, because of the casting of the likeably quirky Paul Kaye, it is more moving to witness the rapport that gradually grows between Paige and her fellow-subversive Mike, the van driver - perhaps a thief, perhaps a shrewd man of honour - who crashes his vehicle in the thick fog outside and finds himself a centre of controversy, and a yardstick by which to measure the moral hollowness of the rest of the gang, at this Last Supper. The character of Lars, though, continues to feel like a missed opportunity. This pop philosopher, whose work gives bogus glamour to a creed of utter selfishness, offers too wide a target, while failing to correspond to anything very specific in the current intellectual climate. Thanks to Walter's superb portrayal of his blighting effect on Paige, that deficiency is not as damaging, in practice, as it could have been.
It would be idle to pretend that the evening has a deep imaginative unity. Indeed, with its diverse flavours of Bunuel, Agatha Christie, Shakespeare, Priestley and Ayckbourn, Dinner is quite a freaky feat of fusion cuisine. But, as served up in Fiona Buffini's buoyant and glitteringly malicious production, it slips down a treat.
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