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Superbly cooked but where is the meat of the matter?

Dinner with Friends, Loft Theatre, Leamington, until October 6 Theatre for many is all about escapism. Others will opt for slice-of-life reality. Either form can be potent if suitably well delivered. This American play takes us up close and personal with two couples exploring their tightly-knit relationships. We dine with them, drink with them, practically breathe down their necks as they range between happy reminiscence, light-hearted banter and sudden sharp accusations. For it all to work to maximum effect, a production of highly intensive naturalism is essential, and writer Donald Margulies is indeed well served in this department. Faultless playing and fine direction ensure that the quartet’s social gatherings strike a ringing note of authenticity. We can savour the ups and downs between the women friends, Ruth Herd’s brash and bubbly Karen and Hannah Brown’s more arty-minded Beth. We can quickly anticipate similar problems for their menfolk, Mark Roberts’s laid-back realist Gabe and Chris Gilbey-Smith’s chirpy fly-by-night Tom. And as the complications begin to further mix and match, we can admire how the pot is so neatly brought to boil by director Robert Lowe. But at what point does a company’s obvious enthusiasm for its project tend to overshadow an audience’s needs? The play offers no real peg on which to hang any development from the faltering friendships. True to life, it might be argued. But of less impact in theatrical terms. Similar themes can be traced through older plays like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Abigail’s Party, to say nothing of some of the earlier Ayckbourns. But all these left a strong and satisfying sense of dramatic accomplishment. Here, on the one hand the standard of acting by all four players is superb, the general production and set and sound design are no less than admirable. But it’s hard not to think they all deserve a more substantial outcome.

Picture: Richard Smith Photography.

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