Written in 1988, After Dinner is Andrew Bovell’s first play. Set in a suburban pub bistro, five single thirty-somethings meet after work for Friday night drinks and a meal, and their very individual personalities and circumstances collide in an achingly brutal riot of sex, misdirections, and variations on the idea of friendship.
Best known for his plays such as When The Rain Stops Falling, Speaking in Tongues (later filmed as Lantana), Holy Day, and the recent adaptation of Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, Bovell is increasingly drawn to the turbulence and tumult of daily lives, the dark and gripping mysteries which lie concealed beneath a veneer of normalcy in each of our lives. Written when he was just twenty-one, After Dinner lacks his trademark finesse and subtlety; everything here is dialled up larger than it should be, all seems to be turned well past naturalism into a kind of crude grotesquerie. Presented here by the Sydney Theatre Company, it is one-hundred minutes of painfully coarse and blunt banter between the five lonely hearts, as their Friday night quickly deteriorates into a night none of them would want to remember in a hurry.
Alicia Clements’ garishly naturalistic set provides an entrance and exit for each character, and doubles somewhat voyeuristically as a recognisable arena for the characters’ confessions, tics, foibles, fears and neuroses to play out against with increasing abandon. Set firmly in-period, Clements’ costumes instantly create character before anyone has opened their mouth, and true to form, they fulfil and surpass our expectations.
After a sluggish first act, the second act is faster and with more purpose; each character comes out of their shell with flair, and has a moment to shine in the spotlight (literally, in more than once case). Their individual situations would probably be hilarious if they weren’t so recognisable and occasionally harrowing. Glenn Hazeldine as Gordon is his usual on-stage mild-mannered self, occasionally dithering, a bit awkward, bit loveable in his own way. Josh McConville’s Stephen is a self-styled ladies man, but as we soon discover, that is only really a veneer he erects to make the reality more bearable. But the piece belongs to the three women – Anita Hegh, Rebecca Massey, and Helen Thompson. As open-minded and over-positive Paula, Anita Hegh is a riot in pink-checks and denim, and has a warmth about her which not even Dympie can extinguish. Rebecca Massey’s Dympie reminds me of a former colleague of mine, over-prescriptive in her imposed beliefs as to what people will or won’t do; but underneath this exterior is someone desperately trying to cling to a veneer of normalcy, desperately wanting to fit in and be accepted. Monika, played by Helen Thomson, is delightfully over the top, very recounting of her adventures is spot-on; her impeccable comic timing is the source of more than one delightfully awkward situation.
No doubt some will remember this era with affection or something approaching horror; one of the youngest in the room when I saw it, I only managed to see the last breaths of the Eighties. While this perhaps prevents me from truly connecting with the piece, there is a kind of rough and somewhat redeeming swagger to the piece in the closing moments of the second act. While not as eloquent or acutely written as his later work, Bovell’s script captures the spirit of the time and place well, and grapples with the uncertainty that rippled throughout the period. Perhaps its youthfulness and desperate need to connect and feel only serves to bring home how much we haven’t changed in thirty years.