King's Theatre, Edinburgh
Opened 25 August, 1997

Philip Franks's hallmark as a director is thought rather than "ideas". This may seem to be damning with faint praise, but quite the opposite is intended; Franks illuminates the plays he directs through careful contemplation of their natures and particularities rather than by turning the arc-lights of a particular "vision" upon them. His productions are practical essays upon the texts in question (without the desiccation that may imply) in which no-one ever, ever overplays.

It makes perfect sense that Franks should have wanted to direct a revival of T.S. Eliot's The Cocktail Party, first staged in the 1949 Edinburgh Festival, and it is fortuitous that Festival director Brian McMaster should simultaneously have decided upon a production of it for the Festival's fiftieth anniversary. Franks and his excellent cast succeed in turning Eliot's mixture of free verse and considered prose into living dialogue, falling short only when the poet is at his most ponderous. It is a revelation to find quite how many lines can, of their own accord, raise laughs.

As Edward Chamberlayne, David Bamber seems at times to raise the spectre of his most recent, frenzied, television sitcom role in Chalk, but his portrayal of a near-nervous breakdown here is far more finely judged. Suzanne Burden as his wife Lavinia captures from the first her monstrous acidity without ever quite sacrificing the audience sympathy which enables her redemption to work on stage. Their trio of "Guardians" are played by an affable Simon Jones, an eccentric Clive Merrison (with a similarly eccentric accent) and an ever so slightly Thatcheresque Maggie Steed.

The play's difficulties remain. The sessions in the consulting room of psychiatrist Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly (Merrison) are staged and lit more as inquisitorial dialogue than therapy, which focuses the attention at once upon the dense content of these scenes and their dramatic shortcomings; in the final act, news of the bizarre and exotic death of Edward's former lover Celia (Catherine Cusack, adeptly letting her character's undirected drive pervade almost every line) is received with a peculiar serenity. In short, the second half of the work is more of an essay in itself upon personal salvation a work of secular mysticism than a play, and even Franks's skill in bringing out theatrical clarity cannot wholly save matters.

Nevertheless, those of us who had feared three hours of dramatic bread-and-water were more than pleasantly surprised; the rehabilitation of The Cocktail Party as a stageable work rather than a written text may well have begun here.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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