April 11, 2018

Nostalgia trips the light fantastic

After Dinner
by Andrew Bovell
State Theatre Company
Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre.
April 10. Tickets: $34- $76. Bookings 131 246 or online.
Duration 2 hours (including interval)
Until April 29.

Murray Bramwell

It is thirty years almost to the day since Andrew Bovell’s After Dinner opened at La Mama in Melbourne and while it is a slice of the late 1980s, the revival by Sydney Theatre Company in 2015, and now this watchable and well-judged production by State Theatre Company, remind us that this play not only still delivers genuine laughs but is unexpected food for thought.

Set in an inner-city bar and bistro, After Dinner captures the end-of-the-week breakout for office workers – grabbing a pub meal before the live band comes on later. Dympie likes to get in early to get a table and hold fort, her long-suffering friend Paula would rather move closer to the dancing and the action.

Their usual Friday night odd couple is hysterically triangulated by another workmate, Monika, in her late thirties, recently widowed, and coming to grips with being single. Across from them, at a nearby table is Gordon, unhappily divorced, who is joined by the party boy, Stephen. They are waiting for another bank colleague, Brendon.

Jonathan Oxlade’s set, in beige and wood veneer (warmly, almost elegantly lit by Nigel Levings) captures pub décor of the time (and still now, for that matter) without resorting to parody and kitsch. The pale chairs and tables could almost be a dining set for Terence Rattigan’s Separate Tables or an Alan Ayckbourn play ; possible comparisons for Bovell – until he lets the stage conversation off the leash.

Astutely directed by Corey McMahon (with assistance from Alira McKenzie-Williams) the performances are uniformly excellent. While familiar comic types, the characterisations have precision and enough depth to give the play some emotional heft among the carefully managed slapstick, brisk exits and startling entrances.

Jude Henshall is peevish and controlling as the unhappy Dympie, Ellen Steele’s Paula is winsome and good-natured, and Elena Carapetis, making the most of Bovell’s Monika, is a study in comic emancipation. Across at the men’s table are two more portraits of loneliness and emotional isolation, two more nighthawks at the diner. Rory Walker as Gordon, sits primly in his monogrammed work clothes, sipping his port while Nathan Page’s Stephen, with shag-cut hair and dressed to INXS, confesses his most secret dysfunctions in this dark Friday night of the soul.

After Dinner is a shrewd mix of fun and social reflection. Bovell’s play is of its time but also transcends it. Andrew Howard’s deftly integrated music incorporates the torch songs of the day – Tears for Fears and Foreigner, along with Bovell’s own original stipulations : The Boys Light Up, the Motels’ Total Control and Lady in Red. But this is not an eighties jukebox musical. It is a play about the fear of being left behind, with enough laughs to enable us to contemplate it.

“Nostalgia trips the light fantastic”, The Australian, April 13, 2018, p.17.

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