Ticking time bomb of first world problems at this dinner party from hell.
In a world that’s slowly but surely saying goodbye to social distancing and gatherings are becoming the norm again, it’s not a stretch to say that we’re almost returning to pre-COVID times, with dinner parties and meet-ups galore. But perhaps one thing that has never left us, before, during and after the pandemic, is how we have always remained in a bubble of our own, one that is dictated by class, as we continue to fret and complain about our problems and ignore the bigger picture, as explored in Torben Betts’ 2012 play Muswell Hill.
In a new staging directed by Pangdemonium’s new associate director Timothy Koh, as much as it may be set in London, Muswell Hill feels startlingly familiar in its portrayal of an upper middle class dinner party gone awry, particularly with its self-centred characters so caught up in their own affairs. The play’s title refers to one of the most expensive suburbs in London, with residents belonging almost exclusively to the upper middle class and above. But this isn’t just a look into the lives of the well-off; it’s also an examination into the burdens we bear regardless of class, as we’re invited to a nightmarish dinner party, filled with unruly guests, skeletons in the closet, and free flow of wine that’s a surefire route to chaos.
Before all hell breaks loose, Muswell Hill feels like the epitome of class. Key to evoking this post code envy is the realistic set by Eucien Chia, depicting a beautifully-fitted, functional kitchen in classy blue, complete with a kitchen island, working stove, dishwasher and sink. Subzero & Wolf provide appliances such as two wine chillers filled with bottles and bottles, while gold adorns the seats and three hanging lampshades. Above, there is a square of black where the ceiling is, allowing our minds to imagine the sheer size of this apartment, extending beyond what our eyes see. Yet, all of this extravagance feels like a facade, with our hosts hiding behind the beauty and expensive design for the brokenness and emptiness they feel in their own lives.
At the heart of the play and owners of this home are successful, power couple Mat and Jess (Jason Godfrey and Nikki Muller). From the get-go, Jason Godfrey embodies his role as a struggling writer facing rejections on all fronts for his debut novel. Nikki Muller, dressed in a cerulean dress, appears as the epitome of a successful career woman, alongside her perfectly styled hair that shows she means business, while preparing the showstopper dish for the evening – monkfish stew. It’s a picture-perfect relationship for a fraction of a second, before the cracks begin to show, as they awkwardly try to placate and praise each other, constantly distracted while attempting to hold a conversation, with tiny jabs at the other’s friend circles and relationships.
The unspoken tension between the two constantly threatens to erupt, but the two are forced to keep up the pretense as the guests begin to arrive, each one more disastrous than the last. None of them are particularly likeable from the moment they step in; their first guest, neurotic nurse Karen (Samantha Hum), brings with her the weight of her recently deceased husband, while also boasting a medley of dietary restrictions, from going vegetarian to staying off alcohol, putting a dent in Jess’ otherwise flawless menu. Dishevelled schoolteacher-in-training Simon (Gavin Yap) enters soon after, clearly unused to being invited to parties and social events with his awkward manner of speaking, and constantly trying to show off his intelligence to make an impact, complete with obnoxious, sweeping ‘know-it-all’ statements and constant interjection about all the places he’s lived. The discomfort in the air is ratcheted up to 100 with the presence of both Karen and Simon in the same room, and Jess is left practically beside herself preparing food, while juggling keeping both guests from leaving out of annoyance at each other.
The final guests to arrive are Jess’ younger sister Annie (Tia Andrea Guttensohn), who loudly declares her intention to quit her job and become a star as she enters theatre school. With a history of alcoholism and rash with her decisions, Annie is as high-strung and dramatic as they come, almost manic as she gushes over Jess’ kitchen and tries to steal the spotlight. Worse still is her ‘fiance’ Tony (Matt Grey), a theatre director in the midst of divorcing his wife who, at almost three times her age, is essentially a flighty sugar daddy who only treats Annie as a plaything for as long as he can stand her. While still sidestepping the tension between herself and Mat, Jess continues to keep a cool demeanour even while juggling this collection of adult children, keeping the guests at bay from tearing each other’s throats out. All of this is captured in Nikki Muller’s tone, constantly forcing back primal rage to maintain an air of civility, along with her medley of facial expressions, reacting to almost every line said throughout the play, where even the hint of a smirk speaks volumes about her thoughts.
Beyond their physicality and believable British accents, first impressions count, and Leonard Augustine Choo’s carefully-curated costumes are key to encapsulating each character’s unique personality through their dress sense. Both Jess and Mat are dressed smartly, as if they were about to go out to a proper restaurant and both in blue, to upkeep the appearance of a couple still very much in love and put together. Meanwhile, Karen, in a lilac turtleneck and leather skirt, two unlike pieces that makes her seem immediately off-kilter in her fashion sense, as if her mind too is somewhat frazzled, or not entirely present enough to put together a coherent ensemble. Simon, in a simple brown jacket, checkered shirt and denim jeans, seems to have missed the memo on the dress code, reflecting his unfamiliarity with dressing for classy social settings and instead dressing down for comfort. Annie, in a fur coat, Bohemian floral dress, leather belt and boots, comes across as an eccentric diva who wants to command attention the moment she steps into a room. And Tony, in a red jacket, blue-grey turtleneck, jeans and mustard trainers, feels like an older man trying his best to insert a hint of youth to be ‘cool’ and relatable to these other, far younger guests.
The hodgepodge of guests, each with their own problems and strong personalities, results in an incredibly awkward dinner party, with each guest complaining about the other or drawing the others into a whirlwind of dramatics as they drunkenly cry and tell lengthy anecdotes of their woe. Torben Betts’ writing is as biting as it comes – in between the laughter comes acidic humour derived from the characters’ complete lack of concern for each others’ feelings, saying the first thing that comes to mind, no matter how ridiculous or hurtful. Annie’s alcohol-fuelled antics in particular make for an uncomfortable watch as she draws Simon and Karen into an impromptu production of Antony and Cleopatra, while even Tony bringing up football and his love for United becomes a potential point of contention between himself and Mat. Mat himself paints a somewhat pathetic picture of himself, constantly seeking approval for his potential as a writer, and wanting to distance himself from the fact that he’s relying on his future inheritance.
Things come to a head when the topic of politics comes into play, a big dinner party faux pas, and in an impressively long, loud, angry outburst from Simon. Gavin Yap steals the show with this scene alone, drawing from a wellspring of hurt and pain that suggests a character who has been ignored and alone all his life, and with an audience at last, somehow manages to insult and enrage every single guest, leaving the party in complete shambles. The irony of it all is how even after all this, they remain as uncaring as they ever were. Throughout the play, characters constantly refer to a devastating earthquake in Haiti. But each time they express their sympathy for the Haitians and magnitude of the tragedy, it quickly becomes an afterthought, as the conversation shifts to their own first world problems. The guests and hosts all reveal themselves to be self-centred individuals lacking self-awareness, each time they speak only cementing their status as selfish, shallow people lacking in empathy for each other, let alone dying citizens in a third world country.
Throughout the play, what director Timothy Koh does so well is to ensure the pace is kept constantly moving, where even during scene changes, the lights never completely black out, and instead are dimmed, as characters continue to physically move and perform the natural progression of events, leaving us to fill in the blanks in conversation. Considering it is his debut as a director on the local theatre scene, Muswell Hill is a successful first outing for Timothy, that shows he is able to build enough tension to make the climax feel like an explosion, and garner strong onstage chemistry between his cast to quickly and effectively establish their relationships with each other and most important of all, to let audiences see that they are all categorically awful people.
As the party drags on, patience runs thin and the civilities disappear. With no filter left to soften the blow, the guests begin to take potshots at one another, bashing them in the face with the hard truths. As each guest leaves, either in tears or livid with anger, they still try their best to leave a lasting impression, a final anecdote or last word that ensures their memory lives on in the wake of the party, perhaps symbolic of our own desperate attempts to convince ourselves we lead meaningful existences, in spite of our small, insignificant lives against the far bigger troubles plaguing the world. In the shambles of the tumultuous evening, only Jess and Mat are left to clean up the mess, and try to patch what remains of their relationship, only for their own wants to get in the way of compromise or even having a proper conversation to salvage their marriage. Left alone as Jess leaves for some ‘fresh air’, it is all Mat can do to hold himself together as he realises the hell of a life they’ve all been leading, still oblivious to their privilege as a news report of a miracle survivor in Haiti plays on his laptop. By taking a step back and seeing how short-sighted we can be, Muswell Hill encourages audiences to leave our baggage at the door the next time we attend a dinner party, or at the very least, learn to empathise and understand the unique circumstances others may be going through, in the hopes that we remain civil and focused on what we have, rather than the petty things in life that divide us.
Photo Credit: Pangdemonium
Muswell Hill runs from 24th June to 10th July 2022 at the Drama Centre Theatre. Tickets available here
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