Celebration

Tue 24th – Sat 28th January 2012

reviews

Daniel Malcolm

at 10:49 on 25th Jan 2012

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The Jesus College Dramatic Society's interpretation of Pinter's Celebration was crisp, funny, and entertaining to a fault...literally. If, like me, you go to Pinter expecting to be psychologically disturbed you may be disappointed. On the other hand, if you aren't such a weirdo, you might not mind that this performance papers over some of the cracks in a script more disjointed and knobbly than many a rhino's big toe.

At one level, "Celebration" is a social-satire at the expense of the "strategy consultants" and "bankers", dining at the most expensive (and thus they think the best) restaurant in town. Poking fun at these very contemporary villains (more so than when the play was first performed in 1999) is dominant and very successful feature of this performance of Celebration. The ponderous Matt, played by Ollie Capehorn in clashing checks and stripes (a nice touch), has just arrived from a ballet, the name of which escapes him, but nevertheless he enjoyed the singing(!?); it's worth going just for the puckered puzzlement which periodically returns to his face. Meanwhile Alfie Fielder, playing Matt's tenaciously stupid brother Lambert (and also his brother-in-law), does a good job of barely looking at his wife for the whole of her wedding anniversary. His crass insensitivity even stretches to reminiscing about romantic flings with other girls, even as his wife goes wobbly at the thought of their first meeting.

Of course it isn't always simply "us" laughing at "them"; at least some of the time we are laughing with them as they viciously victimise each other. On the table next to the wedding anniversary, the saucily self-assured Sonia runs rings around her obtuse husband, a hilarious mixture of gullibility and suspicion. Ellie Wade (Sonia) soon had the audience complicitly giggling with glee each time a snidely veiled jibe struck home.

The play then was as funny as its producer had promised me on the door, but at times it packs more of a punch-line than a punch. Lambert's gratuitous, power-crazed f***ing at subordinates is made to seem comically off-hand. But his words might have more impact if they made the audience jump a bit more and laugh a bit less. The performance also dampens some of the more physical sexual crudity - the men show more respect for the personal space and behinds of the ladies than perhaps realism (though not of course delicacy) demands.

The humour of the satire is spot on then, but at the danger of eviscerating some of the play's Blitzkrieg. However, this wouldn't be a Pinter play if the characters were skin-deep social types. As the play progresses, the reminiscing starts; and as the characters parade their colourful histories, they show a more human side. Far from being simply naive oafs, they seem after all to have some faint insight into themselves and each other. Lambert, superficially the most brutish of them all, and certainly the most socially abrasive, has arguably one of the play's epiphanies when he says that he, unlike "most blokes", realises that he is not the only bloke in the world. This is of course deeply ironic given that Lambert talks at cross-purposes with the other diners more studiously than anyone else in the play. But nevertheless, one would like the play and Alfie to take a little more seriously Lambert's ridiculous but seemingly genuine desire to be '[a] more civilised, [a] gentler person, [a] nicer person' when reincarnated.

One fears that perhaps these nouveau-riche upstarts, turned out in suspenders, and plenty of hair-gel present too easy and tempting a target for a play staged by Oxford students. A little more respect if not for the characters at least for the darker moments of the play might prepare better for the enigmatic final lines of waiter (delivered with aplomb but perhaps a touch hastily): "My grandfather introduced me to the mystery of life and I'm still in the middle of it. I can't find the door to get out."

For my liking then this production defused the weird tension of the play a little too often. The paradoxical barbarians on stage in Celebration could be both more shocking and more sympathetic than perhaps this production played them. But don't let my taste for mentally deranging theatre discourage you from going. It's a sign of how funny the play was that characters miming in the background give way to the odd smile during some of the monologues. And its indicative of the superhuman professionalism of the actors that they don't lapse more often, faced as they are with a more self-consciously outrageous and melodramatic script than many an opera. I can't speak highly enough of the restaurant, or the food. Yes, the food served is real (and very smelling) though seemingly the actors showed little taste for their microwaved haute cuisine. If that doesn't whet you appetite...

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Kira Allmann

at 11:27 on 25th Jan 2012

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Three couples. One restaurant. Several bottles of wine. And an evening of platitudes and jibes. This is the uneventful setting of Harold Pinter’s “Celebration,” which is presented this week by the Jesus College Dramatic Society at the Michael Pilch Theatre. The student actors in this production have staged a rendition of the one-act piece that captures a good deal of its tight comedy, elicits a number of well-timed laughs, and gestures toward a much deeper character portrayal, but in the end, it simply seems to hold back.

The almost claustrophobic world of the play, confined paradoxically to the bustling public setting of a fine restaurant demands verbal precision and effortless timing—a stringent demand for a professional company—and while the play lacks something in momentum and natural delivery, the Jesus group does an admirable job of bringing the darkly sardonic world of Pinter’s unsavory characters to life. At one table sit two couples celebrating one anniversary, two brothers and their wives, who are, in fact, sisters. Nearby, at another table, sits a banker with his vapid, doting wife. The dialogue fluctuates in tone over the course of the evening, from insultingly complimentary to patronizing, condescending, vulgar and even brutally vicious.

The exchange of these stinging, whip-like lines reveals that while the cast have fingered the edges of their characters, they have not fully grasped and internalized them. The lines, though perfectly executed, crave motivation, and the timed pauses and interruptions feel a bit clunky and awkward as though they are being read to the audience rather than acted. The words possessed the comfortable ease that comes with intimate familiarity with the script, but they were somehow out of step with the natural gait of casual speech. “Celebration” is constructed entirely on the rhythmic trading-off of conversation and listening, and after delivering their lines, the characters often faded or disappeared entirely when listening or reacting to other actors in the scene, even breaking character entirely to betray a smile when the audience reacted strongly to a funny moment.

For the small space of the Pilch Studio, the set is arranged very well, and even a seat in the back row provides a descent view of the action. The lines are delivered clearly and audibly, and the characters are established immediately, their personalities revealed in their vocal flourishes and physical demeanors. Were it not for the haltingly rigid comedic pauses and artificial interjections, the characters would surely have convinced the audience of their startlingly distasteful reality.

Despite the production’s minor weaknesses, it is a worthwhile evening out and certainly an apt introduction to Pinter both for those who are perennial fans and those who are only just discovering his work for the first time. Audience members will find themselves genuinely entertained, laughing out loud at the disconcerting awkwardness of bitter marriages, ambitious social jockeying, and feigned romantic jealousy. This ensemble has produced an engaging “Celebration” to which we are all invited.

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