The Cocktail Party
NANCY NAPPER CANTER is disappointed by a play that can’t hold its own liquor.
Friends of Peterhouse Theatre, 18th-20th November, 7.30pm, £4-5
Directed by Tabitha Eccles
The Cocktail Party is a misleading title. Of course it is: the play is by T.S Eliot, a master at suggesting frivolity then delivering agony – look at The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. But whilst Prufrock was a work of genius, Eliot’s most successful play is more of an uncomfortable jumble. I’d say ‘cocktail’, but that sounds too jolly. Sadly, sustaining our interest proved too great a challenge for this production.
It starts well. The cast dealt with Eliot’s gentle satire on bourgeois society with ease and wit. Amy Howlett was excellent as busy-body old woman Julia Shuttlethwaite, and her mulish determination to interfere with everybody’s business prompted the majority of the evening’s laughs.
John Swarbrooke also gave a droll performance as the ‘rather conceited’ Peter, and Joey Akubeze’s Edward also displayed some aplomb. Akubeze successfully made us feel for him as, freshly abandoned by his wife and midway through a mid-life crisis, he struggled to maintain calm at his own cocktail party.
However, the party soon disperses, and from there the play went downhill. Matthew Machalan didn’t muster any of the charisma necessary for the enigmatic part of the Unidentified Guest, a disconcerting crossbreed of shrink and priest who not only knows everything about Edward’s marriage, but also knows everything about everyone.
Seated in his great big armchair, with his monotone voice and sacerdotal air. ‘Go in peace, my daughter’ – he reminded me of Julian Barratt’s Rudi in The Mighty Boosh. Unlike Rudi, however, Machalan had no false teeth to blame for his frequent stumbling over his words. The Unidentified Guest is meant to be chilling, devilish, even. But, as he sipped his ‘gin and water’ out of a mug – what a student! – Machalan just didn’t convey Reilly’s crucial otherworldly element.
Spookiness misfired again in the esoteric chant at the end of Act Two. It is meant, I think, to be eerie; the three characters are plotting to manipulate the others into living their lives with greater moral honesty. Instead it was just weird, and brings me to another reason why The Cocktail Party is a misleading title, for this production at least. The few ‘cocktails’ that do actually get swigged are not made of liquid, but jelly. Yes. Jelly. After the chant, glasses were raised to the mouth sheepishly, tipped up to reveal their contents’ surprisingly solid consistency, and then slammed back on the table. It would have been less distracting to have the actors drink actual cocktails and become increasingly tipsy as the evening wore on. In fact, it might even have helped – during the second half the play became increasingly leaden.
The sudden appearance of the missing wife was suitably dramatic. Kesia Guillery as Lavinia, the spouse Edward finds impossible to love, was justifiably shouty and dislikeable. But her over-enunciation of each line was strangely artificial and grating, and the fraught marital bickering just wasn’t as gripping as it should have been.
Granted, this curiously moralising play is really tricky to pull off, and there was definitely something likeable about the cast as a whole. Hellie Cranney was moving at times as the troubled Celia. However, the disclosure of her unexpected fate proved too funny to be disturbing. Learning that Celia is no longer in the phone directory, Peter asks, ‘Oh… is she married?’ The ridiculous reply: “Not married but dead,” provoked a theatrical gasp from an over-enthusiastic friend in the audience that had the entire cast suppressing a grin. It was strangely endearing. The Friends of Peterhouse Theatre also has an old-fashioned charm that almost persuaded me to give the play three stars. But as Thomas Stearns himself once said, ‘poetry compels honesty’, so I’ll have to stick with two.