Monday, 17 July 2017

Theatre review: Dessert

Oliver Cotton’s flawed but fun, issue-based thriller Dessert is another of those plays that hinges on a major plot twist, this time coming about 20 minutes in – in fact much of the publicity has revolved around Cotton and director Trevor Nunn tying themselves up in knots trying to discuss the play without actually mentioning what it’s about. So once again I’ll try to keep things vague in the opening paragraph before getting spoilery after the text cut. Certainly the promotional image of an unevenly cut cake gives a clue that we’re in for a story about the 5% who own 95% of the world’s wealth, and Rachel Stone’s set is an opulent dining room whose walls are covered with priceless paintings. This is just another room in the house of Hugh (Michael Simkins,) a company director notorious for liquidating a struggling company causing investors to lose their savings, while he got away with a £5 million bonus. SPOILER ALERT for the rest of the review.

Hugh and his wife Gill (Alexandra Gilbreath) are hosting a dinner for their American friends Wesley (Stuart Milligan) and Meredith (Teresa Banham) when all the lights suddenly go out and they find themselves in the middle of a home invasion.

Among the enemies Hugh’s made is Eddie (Stephen Hagan,) an injured former soldier who’s made light work of the house’s security and the fact that the sole full-time staff member is the easily confused Roger (Graham Turner,) a former trader who had a nervous breakdown, and whom Hugh and Gill now pat themselves on the back for giving a housekeeping job to. Eddie has broken into the house to tell the story of his father, who lost his life savings thanks to Hugh’s legal but morally questionable deals, and now has a fairly straightforward question: All he wants Hugh to do is tell him why he deserves the money he makes.

Dessert has evidently made it to the stage pretty quickly, and Nunn isn’t exactly a director known for hacking away at the text, so although it’s comparatively short the play still feels pretty baggy: The characters’ arguments go round in circles a lot as we build to the next plot twist, and the political point gets overstated in the process; while the attempts to bring Roger back into the story are quite clumsy. With a billionaire banker already a pretty easy target, Hugh is also very unsubtly villainous, smugly protesting his innocence in the face of the market’s mysterious workings even while his family and friends are in danger, and going out of his way to pin blame on everyone around him for anything that goes wrong.

But despite the plot holes and heavy-handedness I generally enjoyed Dessert; there’s well-judged touches of dark comedy, Nunn can still rack up the tension and if the numerous plot twists and turns are clumsy they’re also for the most part effective. There’s some good performances, Gilbreath giving a bit of humanity to a character with little to sympathise with, and Banham making Meredith amusingly clueless and blunt. He doesn’t feature much in the publicity, presumably to keep the show’s secrets, but Hagan is essentially the show’s lead as Eddie, whom he plays as mostly in control with only a hint of something over the edge. It’s been a while since I’ve seen Hagan on stage and while it doesn’t hurt that he’s not got any uglier, he’s also intense and watchable in the role. I was reminded how fixated I get with his mouth – he seems to do 90% of his acting with it (the other 10% is mostly eyes.) Dessert is heavy-handed and easy to pick holes in, but Nunn’s assembled a production that successfully plays to its strengths.

Dessert by Oliver Cotton is booking until the 5th of August at Southwark Playhouse’s Large Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore.

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