fri 12/04/2024

The Cocktail Party, The Print Room | reviews, news & interviews

The Cocktail Party, The Print Room

The Cocktail Party, The Print Room

A theatrical soirée you won't want to leave

'I am obsessed by the thought of my own insignificance': Sir Henry (Hilton McRae) and Edward (Richard Dempsey)

It’s a pleasing serendipity that while Martin McDonagh’s clamorously anticipated Hangmen opened at the Royal Court last night, just a little further west T.S Eliot’s The Cocktail Party should also be having its opening night. Back in 1956 another Royal Court premiere – John Osborne’s Look Back In Anger – called time on Eliot and his dramatic ilk, ushering him into a neglect from which he has never really recovered.

But now, sitting once again alongside a younger, more daring breed of theatre, Eliot’s drama proves that – given a chance – it can hold its own.

Prescribed by its author as a comedy (and swallowed greedily as such by the crowds that sustained the play’s initial Broadway run for over 400 performances, winning Eliot a Tony along the way), The Cocktail Party is actually quite the bitter theatrical pill. Drawing-room comedy collides with Greek tragedy to create a sort of secular passion play, a meditation on martyrdom and sainthood where Gin rather than God is source of all succour, and crudités come before crucifixions.

The brilliant Warren leads the comic charge

There’s also the small matter of the text; the play is a verse drama – bound (thankfully) by looser constraints than Murder in the Cathedral, but poetry nonetheless. If you didn’t know it, however, there’s nothing in the fluid, pacy delivery of Abbey Wright’s cast in this taut new Print Room production that would give it away, save perhaps a peculiarly Shakespearean sense of spoken poise. A single verse form must accommodate everything tonally from Coward to Pinter, and it’s the actors who must smooth the transitions, anchoring the early comedy sufficiently to keep the play’s suddenly serious ending from tripping over its own portentousness. It’s a long game that Wright balances beautifully here.

The Print Room’s new home in Notting Hill’s Coronet Cinema gives it much more space, as this first production in the newly adapted main auditorium makes clear. Occupying it to the full, Wright’s actors give their domestic doings a scope and stature, hinting – along with Gary Yershon’s sound design and Wright’s stylised scene-changes – at something beyond the chatter. That something takes gently disquieting form in Hilton McRae’s Unidentified Guest. Lean and sparing of gesture, McRae’s psychologist-cum-priest is torn between boyish delight in his power games – eyes bright with scheming – and a cultivated stillness and focus. There’s no attempt to fill the void Eliot leaves in his motivation, but the dramatic energy shift of his brief ritual encounter with Marcia Warren’s Julia and Christopher Ravenscroft’s Alex speaks loudly of its conviction.

The brilliant Warren leads the comic charge, delivering social sniper fire with relaxed accuracy, deftly assisted by Ravenscroft. Their light-touch brittleness rebounds off Richard Dempsey’s Edward. His energy is an impassive charge of absorption, stillness, thrust into relief only by the arrival of Helen Bradbury’s assertive Lavinia – physically dominant, but cultivating a beautiful delicacy in the final scene.

At the pierced heart of it all is Chloe Pirrie’s Celia (pictured right) – the mistress and drawing-room martyr sent to her unexpected death. Swallowing Eliot’s pompous, self-denying creed is tough, but Pirrie makes it harder by never quite finding in Celia that sweetness and joyous innocence that is needed to balance the dramatic scales. As it is, Christian philosophy threatens to overwhelm emotion, saved only by the dignity of her “consultation” scene with McRae.

Critic Kenneth Tynan famously claimed that while Eliot could “lower the dramatic temperature” he was incapable of raising it. It’s an assertion given the lie by Wright and her cast who find deep moral discomfort as well as gilded drawing-room gloss in The Cocktail Party. Feeling here is the equal of thinking – a balance Eliot might not have approved of, but which makes newly palatable sense of an unfashionably difficult play.

Drawing-room comedy collides with Greek tragedy to create a sort of secular passion play


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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I have no connection with this production or theatre and urge somebody to transfer The Cocktail Party to the West End. This is a more ethereal and gripping production of Eliot’s classic than he would ever have witnessed in his own day. I was weaned on the era of the absurd from Pinter, Beckett, N F Simpson, Brecht et al and it was so invigorating to be plunged back into serious intellectual theatre, and especially this deeply spiritual, emotional and very wordy play and to be held in wrapt attention. As with any of those playwrights, it takes actors who are attuned to the rhythms and insights of the script to do them justice, and this cast excels, as does the direction by the far-too-young-to-know-how, Abbey Wright. Last night I attended a pre-show talk by Eliot biographer Lyndall Gordon who expressed many of these sentiments: distinct surprise to find herself so delighted.

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