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Dinner With Friends (Susan Elkin reviews)

Show: Dinner With Friends

Society: London (professional shows)

Venue: Golden Goose Theatre. 146 Camberwell New Road, Camberwell, London SE5 0RR

Credits: by Donald Marguiles. Presented by Front Foot

Dinner With Friends

Photo: David Monteith-Hodge – Photographise

It’s the vibrant dynamic between the four characters, and the actors who play them which make this a fine production of a well written, truthfully observed play. Why am I not surprised to learn afterwards, first that Donald Margulies won a Pullitzer prize for Dinner With Friends in 2020 and second, that Julia Papp and Kim Hardy who play Beth and Tom and who founded Front Foot Theatre are a married couple in real life?

This poignant and accurate exploration of marriage at about the twelve year point  – when the offstage children are constantly clamouring for attention –  initially presents us with Karen (Helen Rose Hampton) and Gabe (Jason Wilson). Just back from a trip to Italy they show off to their close friend Beth (Julia Papp). They are glitteringly affectionate but they bicker and there’s a lot of tension. Beth meanwhile seems ill at ease and is clearly making excuses for the absence of her husband, Tom. It soon becomes clear that the latter couple are splitting because he has met someone else. Thereafter we get  a whole series of intense, beautifully written high octane scenes between various groupings of the four of them including a flashback – effectively done with wigs, body language, playful joshing and bright lighting – to when they were all young. Ultimately and tragically, resigned as they are to the status quo, we see that Karen and Gabe are judgementally jealous of Beth and Tom for moving on and finding happy excitement again.

All four actors are very accomplished, delivering dialogue at pace, delivering some loud pregnant pauses and doing a great deal of convincing listening. In places it’s ruefully funny. Hampton finds brittle decency in Karen while Wilson is by turns, irritated, resigned and, occasionally randy. I really admired the palpable chemistry between them.

We never see Beth and Tom alone together in marriage. Their back story is unfolded through what they and others say.  Papp gives us a dowdy and distressed woman at the beginning who becomes “pretty again”, as Karen observes, when she meets someone else. She takes the audience with her. Hardy, meanwhile, creates a very plausible character waxing lyrical about the physicality and emotional warmth he enjoys with his new love – although it’s not straightforward and there’s a nasty moment when he admits that he’s come to New York with his partner but will not be seeing his children and we see the long friendship between him and Gabe sliding gradually off the rails.

Shrewdly directed (Lawrence Carmichael), the show also makes excellent use of the refurbished Goose Green Theatre. GGT opened on a shoestring at the end of the first lockdown when we had to sit in surreally spaced rows in an end-on space. For Dinner With Friends it is configured in the round, with new lighting and sound absorbing wall covering. And it works very well. The set consists of IKEA-type storage units in different shapes which are moved to create a breakfast bar, bed, sitting room and so on. The cast move the units between scenes in slow moving, oddly compelling dance – evidently very carefully rehearsed! I had a bit of a problem with the invisible, imaginary food and drink but it’s a very minor point.



 First published by Sardines:
Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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