Saturday, October 08, 2022

Dinner With Groucho – absurd, fantastical, surprising new work from Frank McGuinness (b*spoke theatre company at The MAC as part of Belfast International Arts Festival) #BIAF22

Groucho Marx and T.S. Eliot walk into a bar … well, a restaurant, and they don’t walk in, they just appear after a flash of light cleverly blinds the audience who have up until now been listening to an older woman (Ingrid Craigie) talking in what seems to be her one table, two chair restaurant.

In real life, the comedian and the poet did correspond for three years before meeting for lunch. However, Frank McGuinness’ new play Dinner With Groucho is disconnected with reality in many different ways and I doubt the men’s experience was anything like what has been unfolding nightly on the stage of The MAC this week as part of Belfast International Arts Festival.

The pair verbally spar with quick-fire wise-cracks, funny voices, and gentle jibes. Ian Bartholomew has enough recognisable mannerisms to be a convincing Marx. On the other hand, I’m sure I was not alone in the audience of being less certain what Eliot (Greg Hicks) was like in real life.

Paul Keogan’s mostly subdued lighting brilliantly design turns on a pin, switching to bold, garish colours as much more absurd, fantastical scenes emerge in the blink of an eye, like something Dennis Potter might have scripted, except with none of the naughtiness. Though, there is perhaps the hint of a darker vein of wickedness as the men deliberate over the Jewish champagne.

Adam Wiltshire’s set at first seems simple, but lurking in its darkness are surprises, some sparkling, and others that try hard to remain concealed from the glare of the audience. A single musical number adds energy, but is never repeated.

McGuinness has written an old-fashioned type of play (and that’s not a bad thing). It revels in its own cleverness, the themes from the men’s work and background that are woven into the meandering dialogue. Repetition allows sequences to be reset and rerun. Phrases are played with, ideas are tossed around to see what they can do. It’s playful … right up to the point it becomes tedious.

With a seventy-minute runtime, after 35 you’ve seen most of the tricks – yes, Eliot amuses, maybe bemuses, Marx with some close magic – as well as the repertoire of dialogue devices and the ever more puzzling entrances of the restaurateuse.

The performances that director Loveday Ingram squeezes out of the three-handed cast are strong; the chemistry between the characters can be intense; the set, lighting and sound design always have one more surprise up their sleeves; yet the story runs out of steam. The delusional reveal is not altogether unexpected, but it is – quite possibly, deliberately – confused by the playwright’s unwillingness to stop writing new words, with the final scene elongated until the earlier poetic, playful and even soulful moments are smudged by doubts of misperception.

Dinner With Groucho is an unusual play. Aspects feel set to be imprinted in my memory for a long time to come. But it ended up feeling like I’d lost the firm grip I once thought I had on its story, slipping through my fingers and onto the floor of the restaurant. Dinner With Groucho finishes its run in The MAC on Sunday 9 October. Check out the preview post from a few weeks ago to find out what else the festival is serving up between now and 6 November.

Enjoyed this review? Why click on the Buy Me a Tea button!

1 comment:

Anna said...

I enjoyed your review. I like work by Frank McGuinness and cannot wait to see this one.