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Theatre review: Table Manners, The Basement, Brighton Festival

  • @alicevjones

Table Manners is a triple bill inspired by that most genteel of gatherings: the dinner party. But this is no cosy, bring-a-bottle, one-pot-on-the-scrubbed-kitchen-table affair. Rather it is a “trip to the end of etiquette”, courtesy of three young groups of theatre-makers who see gathering friends for a bite to eat as the excuse for some very bad behaviour indeed.

The starter is provided by Hunt and Darton, an eccentric female duo who have previously taken their pop-up performance art café around the country, including a stint at the Edinburgh Fringe last year. In Brighton, they invite the audience to a wine and cheese evening. All very civilised except the wine is Blue Nun, the cheese is Babybel and they’re broadcasting “our” thoughts to the rest of the guests, through a microphone. “Steve is dreaming about his new Mazda” – that sort of thing.

Hunt and Darton have visual flair – there’s an extravagantly naff buffet of pineapple, Spam and Wotsits spilling out from the centre of the room – and an even stronger sense of the ridiculous. There’s a wonderful moment where they trial various dinner party laughs for longer than is strictly comfortable. The rocket and parmesan salad of starters, then – perfectly enjoyable, not very substantial.

Far meatier is the main course offering from Future Ruins. As the play opens a gang of well-dressed yuppies are chatting about space travel, Bikram yoga and Dragon’s Den over empty plates and the dregs of a bottle of red. It is only when the guests get up to go that it emerges that something is very wrong. They can’t leave. Oh horror – it’s the dinner party that never ends. What starts as a joke, becomes increasingly sinister – a guest faints, a mobile phone won’t stop ringing, the host curls up in foetal position on the floor and there’s something apocalyptic outside the front door.

Based loosely on Maurice Maeterlinck’s The Blind – about a group of blind patients trapped in a forest – and Luis Bunuel’s dinner party horror The Exterminating Angel, this is a horribly compelling hour. A scene in which the guests share ever more horrifying confessions and long-held grievances is edge-of-the-seat stuff which prods at social niceties and liberal apathy. Brilliantly observed and performed by the young cast, it lingers in the memory, like all the best, and worst, parties do.

Dessert comes courtesy of The Honest Crowd, a group from Goldsmiths College who push the tropes of the dinner party – bread rolls, conversations about house prices, magically refilling wine glasses – to their absurd, nerve-jangling conclusion. No spoilers here: suffice to say, it is executed with enormous skill by the game cast but 10 minutes in, I’d already had my fill.