Monday, November 23, 2015

Don't Dress For Dinner - Canberra Repertory

Review by John Lombard

So far, we've met Bernard (Peter Holland). He's the type of man who enjoys the finer things in life: wine, women, and adultery. Tonight he has special plans for a quiet evening at home: just him, some catering, and his mistress Suzanne (Michelle Cooper).

Unfortunately his wife Jacqueline (Monique Dyson) happens to pick up the phone at the wrong time and learns from the caterers that her husband will not be as alone as he has led her to believe. Undaunted, Bernard hastily explains that his good friend Robert (Rob De Fries) will in fact be visiting, which of course perfectly clears up the harmless misunderstanding over the catering.

Unfortunately for Bernard this does not mark the end of the play, for this revelation unexpectedly convinces Jacqueline to cancel her plans and stay home. After all, she has secretly been having an affair of her own: and with Robert visiting this is the perfect opportunity for a quick liaison, no need to even pay for a hotel room.

Few married couples are so well-matched.

From there, the cast resemble a team of tightrope walkers trying to keep balanced while juggling more and more teacups. The more lies they have to keep in the air, the closer they come to a fatal slip that will bring everything crashing down.

Adultery can be a painful topic but fortunately nobody really has our sympathy. Everyone is either having an affair or in it for the money, so we don't feel too bad when it is their turn to sweat a little. Nobody can lose out, because nobody deserves to win. And in any case, the characters are so resilient and elastic that they can survive anything the night throws at them. Like clown punching bags, the harder you hit them, the faster they swing back up.

Peter Holland and Rob DeFries reprise a dynamic Repertory veterans will recognise from its 2011 farce Out of Order, with the smug and amoral Holland coaxing his loyal and slightly nervous best friend into following his plans. The two are a highly effective comic duo, ruthlessly sharp with the at times ridiculously complex script, never losing the thread of what is happening even when much of the audience has probably given up.

Natalie Waldron is lively as minxish working class caterer Suzette, especially when she slips into a series of new roles and one particularly creative dress (or half of one). Michelle Cooper's Suzanne is in high dudgeon from almost the moment she enters, and the script doesn't give her much reason to relax or forgive after that: we don't see her as a temptress, but as an avenging warrior woman. Monique Dyson's Jacqueline is likewise mostly seen in a state of betrayal, hatching new revenges against whichever man has crossed her at that moment. Both characters needed more inveigling softness and seduction.  Daniel McCusker as the allegedly rough and scary George is also too cuddly to be as fearsome as the script keeps telling us, and the ease with which Robert and Bernard are able to manhandle him strips his character of its potential menace and tension.

Canberra Rep generally does farce very well, and this production does not disappoint. Farce is much more difficult to perform than it seems, and director Walter Learning has crafted a very tight, disciplined show that runs like clockwork. What is really impressive about this play is how generous it is with its invention: it packs more into its first act then a lesser farce would into the entire show. An uproarious, sexy, and thoroughly entertaining night of theatre.