Review of Dessert at Southwark Playhouse

Dessert: L-R Stuart Milligan, Teresa Banham, Graham Turner - photo credit Catherine Ashmore
Dessert: L-R Stuart Milligan, Teresa Banham, Graham Turner – photo credit Catherine Ashmore
As the Bible says in 1 Timothy 6, verses 9-10 “those who want to be rich, however, fall into temptation and become ensnared by many foolish and harmful desires that plunge them into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. By craving it, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows.” Yet, we all do want money. Millions are spent every week on various lotteries. The strange thing is, that wherever we end up on life’s rich list, there is always someone who we envy for having more. And occasionally this envy can spill over into action as demonstrated by Oliver Cotton in his play Dessert at the Southwark Playhouse.
In a rather nice country house, four people are enjoying a dinner party: Sir Hugh Fennell (Michael Simkins) and his lovely wife Gill (Alexandra Gilbreath) are entertaining fellow financier Wesley Barnes (Stuart Milligan) and his equally lovely wife Meredith (Teresa Banham). The meal, cooked and served by the Fennell’s eccentric factotum Roger (Graham Hislop) has been delicious and, as the four wait for their dessert, two things happen. The first being Wesley finally noticing the latest addition to Hugh’s painting collection. A portrait that, if its provenance is proved and it turns out to be a genuine Giorgione, could be worth millions of pounds. The second event is less pleasant as the party is invaded by Lance Corporal Eddie Williams (Stephen Hagan). Eddie is a man on a mission and that mission is to avenge his father who lost his life’s savings by investing in one of Hugh’s companies that then proceeded to go ‘belly up’. Eddie holds the household hostage while he tries to make Hugh understand the enormity of the wrong he has perpetrated on Eddie’s father and millions like him.
Before saying anything else about Dessert, I want to raise a massive cheer to set designer Rachel Stone for not only creating an absolutely fabulous Georgian style dining room but, at the same time seeming to double the size of the Playhouse’s stage. Director, Sir Trevor Nunn makes full use of the space and keeps things moving in his usual dexterous way.
Dessert is an intense play that really pins its colours to its sleeve as to the position it adopts with regards to wealth, power and influence. The plot wanders a bit but in a good way and I was completely engrossed in the play to the point that I was actually surprised when the interval came up. There was a lot of humour in the writing, but also some very emotional moments that really grip the watching audience. I suppose my one criticism is that the writing is really skewed in favour of Eddie and the downtrodden working man which leaves the financiers little room for manoeuvre as they try to justify their salaries and bonuses.
Dessert: L-R Alexandra Gilbreath, Stephen Hagan - photocredit Catherine Ashmore
Dessert: Alexandra Gilbreath, Stephen Hagan – photo credit Catherine Ashmore
Eddie is a traditional working class lad. He probably joined the army as there was nothing else for him and now, after an incident in Afghanistan, he is home, one leg amputated and trying to help his financially bereft parents. Stephen Hagan is an absolute delight to watch as Eddie. The character is beautifully written – erudite and intelligent with an unexpectedly fine knowledge of art and a definite code of conduct – and Stephen really breathes life into him. He has that way of talking and shouting that – if you have ever been in or had interaction with NCOs’ in the military – is at once recognisable. It’s difficult to explain but it’s in the tone of voice and the emphasis on certain words or syllables. Two minutes into Eddie’s arrival I felt like I was back as an ‘erk’ on the parade ground at RAF Swinderby. That isn’t to say that Stephen’s portrayal makes Eddie a standard ‘grunt’. No, Eddie is a fully functioning human being who, in other circumstances, the dinner party guests might have got on with very well. The one thing that let Stephen down was his salute at the end which was definitely not up to army standard. Apart from that, Stephen put in a first class performance throughout. This is true of the other characters and it really feels as if there is a history between each of the couples. Things unsaid and resentments built up over the years which, with Eddie acting as the catalyst, come to the surface and change those relationships completely.
Finally, I really, really enjoyed Dessert. Every aspect from the writing to the performances worked really well. As I said before my one concern was the definite bias in the writing which left little room for maneuver for anyone trying to defend the financiers but, apart from that, I think Dessert is one of those plays that starts a conversation that keeps going long after the show is finished and the theatre is closed and for that, I salute the entire production.
4 stars
Review by Terry Eastham

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