Dessert at Southwark Playhouse
Oliver Cotton’s new play offers an evening of sparkling debate with a gritty edge. It’s drawing room drama with a generous helping of agitprop theatre: the perfect complement to today’s news of executive bonuses, Sir Philip Green’s liquidation of BHS and Jeremy Corbyn’s calls for a maximum wage law. Top of the agenda is the question: how much can one person be worth? And how much money is enough?
Two affluent couples dine in a lavish home. Hugh (Michael Simkins), a wealthy financier, and his wife Gill (Alexandra Gilbreath) are entertaining their American friends. After the small talk and Churchill-esque overlapping dialogue, the conversation turns to Hugh’s new painting, potentially a rare original Giorgione. The evening is dramatically interrupted by Eddie (Stephen Hagan), a one-legged ex-soldier from an entirely different walk of life.
In the capable hands of director Trevor Nunn, the speed of descent from refined dinner into bloody chaos is artful and arresting. Cotton brings us promptly into a debate about bankers and their rate of pay. It transpires that Hugh liquidated one of his companies to save another, and in the process lost Eddie’s dad’s – a shareholder – life savings. Knowing that Hugh’s greed is protected by the law, Eddie knows he must go vigilante in order to bring him to justice.
With beguiling ridiculousness, Hugh leaps to the defence of the financial system. “The market is entirely amorphous. It’s bigger than anything you can conceive… It’s completely ungovernable… It’s quantum physics: to work it you have to know it, respect it.” As the two men verbally spar, questions of value bounce between them. How much is a piece of art worth? How about a man? It’s not until well into the second half that Eddie asks the pertinent question: “How much do you need?”
The two wives, at least, show their humanity, yet it’s undermined by the very reality of their lavish existence. A dark humour – seamless and never jarring – runs through the evening.
Gilbreath makes a lasting impression as Gill Fennell, in part thanks to her deep, honeyed voice. Hagan strikes the right balance of threatening nut job and righteous justice seeker as intruder Eddie.
Thanks to Cotton’s weighty script and Nunn’s pacey direction, Dessert is one of those real “mirror to society” plays delivered with an eloquence and urgency that carries the debate beyond the auditorium.
Photo: Catherine Ashmore
Watch the teaser video for Dessert here: