Writer: T. S. Eliot
Director: Abbey Wright
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Are we all strangers to ourselves and to others, can we ever really know anyone else and is our supposed knowledge of other people just the ‘memory of moments’ we have shared? These questions lay at the heart of T. S. Eliot’s philosophical and emotionally-charged play The Cocktail Party revived by the Print Room at its new home at The Coronet in Notting Hill. A former theatre transformed into a cinema in the 1920s and now restored to life as working theatre again, how appropriate that Eliot’s play about shadows of people should be performed in this ghost of a place.
The play is book-ended by cocktail parties; at the first the stifled Edward Chamberlayne is desperately concealing the absence of his wife Lavinia from his nosey friends. Assuming she has left him, he concocts a story to save face but finds himself suddenly bearing his soul and the emptiness of his marriage to a mysterious stranger, a man he didn’t invite and knows nothing about. In that moment he contracts a pact with the stranger to have his wife back and throw over his young mistress, Celia, a choice that leads to emotional turmoil and significant consequences for all of them.
Director Abbey Wright has produced a compelling and elegant revival in this fascinating new theatre space. Seated in what was the circle, the floor has been raised to sit in line and the shabby grandeur of the room seems to fit the themes of this play perfectly. Wisely, Wright and designer Richard Kent have paid heed to their surroundings and kept the rest of the production decidedly minimal, with just a few chairs, a table and a telephone, keeping the focus entirely on the somewhat complex philosophical debates between the characters. One of the successes of this production is how ghostly and ethereal it feels, cleverly emphasised by David Plater’s light effects, which draw on the multiple references to ghosts and dreams in the text.
The performances are mostly extremely good, particularly Richard Dempsey as Edward whose initial surface coldness becomes increasingly agitated and discomposed as the play unfolds, and Dempsey emphasises his psychological confusion. He is particularly good in scenes with Helen Bradbury playing the strong-willed Lavinia, and they bring an interesting force and bitterness to their wrangles. Hilton McRae is a commanding presence as the stranger, acting as a subconscious for the characters and driving them to make choices, but McRae also brings a calmly paternal air to the rôle suggesting whatever decisions they come to are destined and for the best.
Christopher Ravenscroft and Marcia Warren add the comic touches as two well-meaning but nosey neighbours determined to get involved, but as it transpires their rôle is considerably more directive than the audience first realises and this change of tone was managed nicely by the actors. Celia is meant to be a centrepiece of the action, resolutely dealing with the loss of her lover which leads to a perhaps overly dramatic conclusion to her story. Chloe Pirrie is at her best in the second half dealing with the consequences of the fall-out, but seemed somehow uncomfortable in the first, rushing her lines and not grasping the poignancy of some of the moments. A strange suggestion maybe but perhaps it is her shoes that need to change; Celia is standing for a lot of the first half and Pirrie seemed a little unstable in her footwear which is perhaps unbalancing that part of the performance, whereas seated in the second half she seemed much more confident.
The Cocktail Party is not an easy play and anyone expecting a light drawing room comedy will be surprised. It’s verbose and the philosophical debates are at times complex both in their content and language which can occasionally make them hard to follow – even Alec Guinness refused to be drawn on what the play means, as the programme notes inform us. Yet this revival is compelling to watch and gives you plenty to think about as the characters debate love and reality. It’s a beautifully staged revival and a fitting start to the new life of The Coronet.
Runs until: 10 October | Photo: Marc Brenner