Wednesday, 19 July 2017
by Oliver Cotton
The Last Supper
There's a real hunger for plays with a new take on financial inequality and the state we're in. But there has to be a fresh insight and Oliver Cotton's new play, Dessert, directed by Sir Trevor Nunn, seems curiously dated and unrigorous in its analysis.
Financier Sir Hugh Fennell (Michael Simkins) and his wife Gill (Alexandra Gilbreath) are domiciled in the UK in a palatial spread surrounded by a collection of paintings.
They are entertaining an equally affluent Connecticut business associate Wesley Barnes (Stuart Milligan) and his blonde, dippy wife Meredith (Teresa Banham).
And they've just reached dessert.
Loyal factotum Roger (Graham Turner) is about to serve the cheese, after they've gorged on something delicious in a tarragon sauce, when their smug bonhomie is suddenly plunged literally into darkness.
Afghanistan veteran Eddie (Stephen Hagan), terribly maimed during active service, invades their dining room with a gun, having disabled the mansion's electricity and security system.
He's demanding justice for his stroke-ridden newsagent father who had put all his and his wife's life savings into a Fennell company which subsequently collapsed and from which Sir Hugh had walked away.
We were wondering about the dramatist's choice of the newsagent trade for Eddie's Dad - itself under siege from supermarkets for its core products - print newspapers (which have their own problems), cigarettes and lottery tickets.
However this never developed into anything, although there was, late on, peculiarly a variation on the six Ws, taught to all trainee journalists, which also appears in Ink this season.
We guess it was deliberate that at the start a meal was made, in all senses of the word, of a variety of culinary herbs and that Sir Hugh's surname is Fennell, but we don't for the life of us know why. It's that kind of show.
If it had then become a full-blown satire, with or without herbs, it might have gripped us. But even the trigger event for Eddie seems wildly implausible in a jarring way.
Newsagents have a professional association which also gives some financial pointers. Presumably Eddy's parents were not the only alleged victims of Sir Hugh and his (unmentioned) lawyers and accountants.
Surely, in the age of the internet, those who had lost their money would organise themselves into a pressure group and even, heaven forbid, contact the press?
But it seems that Eddie's Mum and Dad instead flailed from solicitor to (self) regulatory bodies which were mentioned.
This is a bit of a clunky criticism on our part, picking on what some might see as a small part of the play. Nevertheless, we do feel it's indicative of the comedy drama's force-fed scenarios which simply do not hang together.
In the midst of being held hostage, each of the diners, the hostage taker and the Man Friday launch into speeches filled with a set of under developed, under researched passing references to issues.
Not even a moment when a tap on a glass chimes like the New York Stock Exchange bell can save this play. We get the soundbites but no fresh insights.
On the plus side, a fine cast do what they can with the woefully underdeveloped material and thinly-drawn characters they've been handed. There's also a handsome set from Rachel Stone evoking the mansion and its picture gallery.
Yes, there's been Enron, Bernie Madoff, the Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and the Pension Protection Fund affair and now, tragically, the trail of bank-backed companies involved with the Grenfell Tower fire, amongst many others.
However Dessert feels like simplistic political agit-prop rather than an attempt to grapple wittily and dramatically with the landscape of global finance, wars in the name of defence and public goods falling into private pockets. So it's a famine rather than feast red/amber light.