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SUDS: Dinner & A Show

Bennett Sheldon reviews a meal he shared with an awfully theatrical family.

Dinner and A Show Poster

December 15th-20th, Cellar Theatre, Sydney University, 6pm

$3 SUDS/$5 ACCESS/$7 Students/$10 General Admission

A ‘show’ is a show regardless of medium. We’re all familiar with the act of sitting down and subjecting ourselves to an experience that we engage with, but are fundamentally separate from. ‘Dinner’, on the other hand, is a pretty loaded term, although we might not realise it. It’s not just a meal, but the ritual behind it—the interactions and how-was-your-day?’s that formed our relationships with our family. Unlike its bland brother Breakfast, Dinner not only concludes the day, but invites a dialogue upon it. SUDS’ Dinner and a Show brings the worlds of Dinner and Theatre together, beyond what you expect to find in the Cellar Theatre.

It’s not uncommon for pieces to break the fourth wall of theatre, or to use an audience’s discomfort to realise their dramatic goals, but Dinner… attempts to do both in what directors/writers Charlie O’Grady and Nicola Cayless describe as “meta-drama”. However, this piece is differentiated from traditional provocative theatre as in watching it, our discomfort is not just directed toward the experience, but also to our role within it. We are not positioned as audience members at the theatre, but as guests at the dinner table. We receive our promotional material as invitations, are seated by a gracious host, and offered a delicious home cooked meal. Throughout the evening, we are not just spectators of the intimate family-drama dynamic, but are a part of it. We feel the palpable tension without being separated by the barrier that the audience/actor line creates. Conceptually, the show is fascinating. The piece embraces what is most powerful about theatre by implicating the audience in an action that unfolds live in front of you. Both the ‘liveness’ and the physical proximity push the boundaries of convention. Improvisation is used extensively, revolving around a foundation of intense character development so that the progression of the evening embraces the presence of the audience, treating the narrative as a series of destination checkpoints rather than a roadmap. Obviously, it is a prepared narrative, but much of this pretence is stripped away as Dinner… morphs around the very evening we have had a part in creating. Ultimately, the improvisation brings us into the show, as we’re occasional recipients of questions or remarks that allow the tone of the room to be constructed. Likewise, by being seated within the action, we are deprived of the superficial barrier which so often helps us disengage from the text. At any point we could speak, and that’s a part of the show.

In terms of execution, the details within the dining table set—the food, the seating procedure, and the promotional design—all work together to immerse us in the experience of the evening. Similarly, the performances were strong and showed evidence of truly deep characters, with key elements of character made clear without explicit mention (occasional subsequent explicit references undermined the nuance of the piece as the audience was occasionally spoon fed what was already clear). The show was performed by a true ensemble cast of Michael Cameron, Ian Ferrington, Sarah Graham, Meg McLellan, Patrick Morrow, and Jack Scott. Not all characters spoke or were characterised evenly, but that was only necessarily true of the performance I saw, and is evidence that plot is not forced at the expense of a genuinely evolving narrative. Certain points may have seemed contrived, or unnecessarily explicit, but the means by which points were arrived at was astounding, and the narrative never seemed to jump past where it took itself. The moments of silence following family bombshells, in which only the awkward movement of cutlery could be heard, were the moments which gave the piece its fire.

Whilst the concept is brilliant, my concern is that it didn’t go far enough, and ultimately gave the audience the escape which the directors initially sought to inhibit. The audience may be seated at the table, but they’re only interacted with very briefly at the beginning of the show, or perhaps receive slight remarks during lulls in the tension. Unfortunately, the result is that the audience is able to reconstruct the wall that was forcefully removed and separate themselves from the tension of the piece. In the end, I didn’t feel as awkwardly ‘present’ as might have been the goal, as I felt comfortable to simply sit and watch the drama unfold, knowing that I wouldn’t be called upon—or even necessarily wanted—to contribute. After being seated I was never made aware of what my place within this world was, my relationship with it, or even my justification for being there. While the actors worked off of extensive character and relationship development, I had neither of these tools and so couldn’t escape remaining a silent observer. The immersion as a part of the table certainly stepped in a provocative direction, but in the end I did remain an audience member to a show. I’d have liked to see cast members ask guests who they sided with after particularly charged arguments, or to weigh in on issues, so as to break the security of knowing that despite the tension, I’m not involved and am thus ‘safe’. Of course, routes such as this would be intensely confronting for the audience, but that might have been the point, and it may have been the only way to really break down the barriers which prevent us from being of a show, rather than witness to it. We are in a familiar position, stuck in the middle of an argument which we are not directly involved in, but can’t separate ourselves from, and in many ways the awkwardness of not wanting to improvise in public is comparable to not wanting to speak while your parents are fighting. Similarly, the sudden introduction of music seemed bizarre, as while the show successfully bucked many conventions of both theatre and the superficiality of performance, it also resolved with one of the most superficial, filmic elements used in live performance.

If this seems to read more as a discussion than a review then that’s because it is. If you’re reading this, then the show is sold out and you won’t get to see it unless you already knew about it weeks ago. Should you have seen it? Yes, of course. The piece challenges our axioms of theatre, not just through the use of improvisation, or development of character, or interactions with the audience, but by rethinking our very role as an audience and how a story can be told. I’m excited by a show which is willing to take risks and this was certainly one of the most engaging pieces of theatre I’ve seen in some time. Any shortcomings I identified were only evident by the extraordinarily high bar that Cayless and O’Grady gave themselves, as the narrative and characters were captivating, and would have easily sufficed as a traditional show. I hope that Cayless and O’Grady continue to work in this fashion in the future, further involving audiences and challenging how we experience theatre, because I’m still hungry for dessert.

[Eds note: we saw the show on a different night, and with it, a totally different mode of interaction emerged. On this night, audience members seemed intent on intruding into the dramatic space, and with it, they were able to enact some control over the contour of the piece. Essentially, Dinner… very much varies depending on when and how you see it. Interaction from the audience, with the right amount of respect, influences the evening significantly.]