How big a slice do you deserve?
The tagline for Dessert is sadly not a reference to cake. Or at least not uniquely (perhaps more in the way Marie Antoinette discussed baked goods). While the main action of Oliver Cotton’s new play takes place post-dinner, Dessert is more about the condition of being deserving (or not). Tackling the exorbitant wealth and greed of financiers, Cotton’s strange play might be considered a hard-hitting probing commentary on capitalism, if it were not so breezily and bewilderingly executed.
Sir Hugh Fennell (Michael Simkins) and wife Gill (Alexandra Gilbreath) host a lavish dinner party with Wesley and Meredith Barnes (Stuart Milligan and Teresa Banham), their rich American friends. For the first fifteen minutes Cotton’s script makes a stunningly unoriginal observation: the dinner chatter of the mega wealthy is rather dire. Conversation topics include a special type of tree sap crucial to spiritual awakening and Hugh’s newly acquired (and terribly valuable) painting, accompanied of course by casually racist and sexist quips. That these people are terrible is essentially a foregone conclusion.
But they are then interrupted by an intruder, Eddie Williams (Stephen Hagan), who tells us how bad they really are. Working alongside a mysteriously well-trained and unexplained army of income-discrepancy avengers, Eddie has decided to take down Sir Hugh and all his fortune! Why, you ask? Don’t worry, Eddie will tell you in long didactic paragraphs about how Hugh has ruined his father’s life. Ditzy questions from Meredith and drastic misunderstandings from Roger (Graham Turner), the Fennell’s chef, provide bland comedic relief.
Cotton does offer up some good critiques of our current capitalist model, such as when Eddie asks Hugh if he thinks he’s really worth his yearly £4 million-pound bonus, or when questions around how we value art (for its own sake or for its monetary worth) are raised. And when Gill admits to Hugh that their obscene lifestyle is something that equally shames and sustains her, Cotton elucidates the perpetual ways in which wealth defends itself even with a well-calibrated moral compass.
Yet while there are plumbable parts of Cotton’s script, it is not the ‘urgent’ and ‘very now’ piece Trevor Nunn suggests it is. Rachel Stone designs an obviously posh stately home adorned with fine art that’s strangely cut out along its edges. For a play set in the present, it’s strangely anachronistic; a rotary telephone sits alongside smartphones. While the large room works well on the spacious Southwark stage, it lacks any sort of style or believable opulence.
The cast, however, are quite credible, and strong performances save this otherwise baffling piece. Simkins as Hugh is particularly good, initially enchanting, and carrying himself with a composure and an assuredness that is almost deluded. Hagan’s Eddie is excellent, delivering his long speeches with intense conviction, even as his hostages refer to him by his first name and try to make light-hearted conversation.
Parts of Cotton’s plot are so farfetched that it makes the entire thing feel ludicrous. And of course it is ludicrous that CEOs are able to effectively take home multi-million pound wages whether or not their companies do well, but the twists and turns undermine and undo any sort of real critique one can make about the financial industry.
Most confusingly, Nunn handles the play as if it’s a strangely formulaic farce. Debates about income disparity are inserted into a typical living room comedy with stereotypical characters, where predictable punchlines are expected to elicit guffaws from an assumed middle class audience. The juxtaposition of tone and content is utterly perplexing: the former acts almost in direct opposition to the latter. Any real provocative observation about class is deflated and made palatable by a wide-eyed surprise or quip. Even the ending, although not wholly resolved, contains the sort of conventional tying up of loose ends that comforts an audience.
So while the tagline is a direct question posed to audience members, Dessert is not an interrogative or incisive commentary on today’s market. It does not really ask us to reflect, either on the piece of theatre we’ve just witnessed, or on the wider world.
Dessert is on at the Southwark Playhouse until 5 August 2017. Click here for more details.