Monday, March 6, 2017

Review: Ionesco/Dinner at the Smiths', 4th March 2017

Ionesco/Dinner at the Smiths' reviewed by David James

Rating: 3 Stars

It's been about 70 years since audiences first thrilled to the 'theatre of the absurd', so how does it hold up in this rather absurd era? Ionesco/Dinner at the Smiths' bills itself as being assembled from "fragments of Eugene Ionesco's works", but primarily seems like an adaptation of his 1950 play The Bald Soprano, inviting its audience to sip wine around a cruciform dinner table as we observe bizarre social interactions between host and guest.

Created by Marianne Badrichani and the Company and taking place in the sumptuously high-ceilinged Latvian House, we begin outside on the street. A primly dressed butler (Jorge Laguardia) distributes menus, then proceeds to lead us up the winding stairs to the banquet room.

We sit and chat for a while, eventually interrupted by the arrival of Mr and Mrs Smith (Sean Rees and Lucy Russell). They're an archetypical English couple who feel like they've fallen out of a 1960s sitcom. Mr Smith is a Daily Mail reading, cravat-wearing ex-Navy type with an unearned air of superiority and a face that's quick to redden. She has a stick up her arse, wiry and tense body language and darting eyes, as if she suspects judgmental neighbours have planted spycams in the room to observe them.

And so our hosts, gamely struggling through a dinner party that feels as if the hors d'oeuvres are laced with liquid ketamine. By the time guests Mr and Mrs Martin (David Mildon and Edith Vernes) arrive, we're trapped in a thicket of looped nonsense conversations, ouroboros repetitions, questions becoming answers mid-way through, and the sense that everything is prim and proper and perfectly absurd.

It's all pretty 'Ionesco-y', something helped by the playwright himself turning up to be interviewed. He gives us a potted life history and a summary of his theatre of the absurd: which recognises that, for all our social graces, we're each isolated in a meaningless, chaos. Every creaked out crap dinner party anecdote, just a desperate attempt to keep the existential wolf at the door. There's only one escape  - to embrace absurdity, laugh into the void and accept the human condition and all its peculiarities.

Here, the 'dinner party' setting aims to shake us out of complacency, using absurdity as the scalpel to show the real core of the bourgeois soul. The company goes about this not just by the surreal dialogue, but by blindfolding us and whispering in our ear and tickling our shoulders, and serving a 'main course' of sentence linguini to consume. 

For the most part this works fine. Even when it's not particularly interesting the show is weird enough to hold your attention. The cast, particularly, Sean Rees and Lucy Russell, lean into their roles beautifully, evoking a kind of Englishness that generally only exists in the heads of Conservative MPs.

Thing is, by 2017 the characters feel a little dated. When the play was first staged in 1950 these were plump, prime targets for satire. Now it feels a bit like watching a 1970s sitcom with unusually surreal dialogue - or perhaps a Monty Python sketch. Maybe these retro-sensibilities are unavoidable. but it blunts the show's edge a tad especially when contemporary society has so many worthy targets to aim at.

What's left is a show whose peculiarities and passion I appreciate, but the actual experience of sitting there watching it left me a little cold. Perhaps it's that in the age of Trump, it feels as if we're actually living the theatre of the absurd, leaving experiencing it through theatre a redundancy. Ionesco/Dinner at the Smiths has sparkling moments, but taken as a whole it's a meal that doesn't quite satisfy.

Ionesco/Dinner at the Smiths is at Latvian House until 1st April. Tickets here.

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