The Sydney Theatre Company’s 2015 season is off to a superb start with this perfectly calibrated new production of Andrew Bovell’s first play, After Dinner, from 1988.
Five characters in their 30s – three single women and two single men – sit at separate tables in a gaudy bistro, squabbling over the bill and surreptitiously eyeing one another. Written when the playwright was just 21, After Dinner is funny but not patronising, and one of its marvels is that a writer so young could capture thirtysomething ennui so compassionately.
Imara Savage has got this show down to a satisfying purr, partly because it’s perfectly cast. Rebecca Massey is gloriously unlikeable as the pocket ogre Dympie, while Anita Hegh as her offsider Paula demonstrates unexpected grit as well as sweetness. Glenn Hazeldine and Josh McConville are the lotharios, one a bumbler and the other all chintzy suavity – both equally as hapless with the ladies.
But as with the STC’s Children Of The Sun last year, Helen Thomson runs away with it. Is there a better comic actor in the country? Thomson plays Monika, whose recent widowing is the pretext for the girls’ night out. Unravelling with alarming speed, Monika’s journey from dazed housewife to teller of hard truths culminates in a monologue for the ages. It’s like an outtake from an alternative Wake In Fright that admits the female point of view, in which the denizens of the Aussie pub might startle Bosch himself. The whole cast is dynamite, but Thomson dazzles.
Bovell’s recent work – adaptations like the The Secret River, Edge Of Darkness and A Most Wanted Man – are hardly gag-fests, but After Dinner is more in the mode of Strictly Ballroom, released only a few years after it, in which Bovell mines the pathos of romantic longing in suburban Australia. As in Strictly, the characters here find a way to connect to each other through music and dance. Madcap as it is, After Dinner is also a clarion call from a young Bovell, a celebration of the power of art to transcend even the most prosaic of environments.
After Dinner plays at Wharf 1, Sydney Theatre Company until Saturday March 7.