Pros: Brilliant concept, brilliant execution.
Cons: Too short! And there’s a risk of ‘tennis neck’.
The menu for Dinner at the Smiths’ includes a reassuring footnote: “Doctor in service, in case of existential crisis.” I doubt that Dr McKenzie-King’s services will be required. Far from inducing an existential crisis, this Ionesco mash-up is an exhilarating, hilarious and sensual experience that leaves you feeling that if life has no purpose beyond shared laughter, well, that’s probably quite enough.
Seated around a long dinner table, a glass of (French) wine in hand and a plateful of blindfold in front of us, we are present at the suburban home of Mr and Mrs Smith. In attendance are the butler and the maid whose slightly manic hyper-charm sets a deranged tone from the get-go. We are first introduced to Mr and Mrs Smith, who sit at the far ends of the table. Both talk inconsequential, illogical nonsense, and neither seems to understand or care what the other is saying. Evidently the table is the least of what divides them. They are joined by their guests, the Martins, who are dressed identically to the Smiths; Ionesco’s way of underlining the interchangeability of these banal, ridiculous non-persons. On arrival the Martins engage in a protracted discussion that tortuously leads them to the conclusion that not only do they know each other, they actually share a home!
So far, so faithful to The Bald Soprano. But then Sean Rees hands Mr Smith’s red cravat to the butler and turns into Ionesco. Recreating a televised interview from the 1960s, the cast take turns to quiz the playwright about his childhood, his inspiration, the meaning of his work and the initial reactions to it. What could be a clunky exposition of the playwright’s intentions is actually very effective; Ionesco’s conciseness and clarity, insight and self-awareness are the perfect counterpoint to his characters’ babbling obtuseness.
Back at the dinner party, sex and sensuality are much more in evidence than food. The brilliant Edith Vernes plays Mrs Martin as a middle-aged ingénue who, in claiming not to know her husband, could almost be engaging in early evening sexual role-play. Later, when Jorge Laguardia’s swaggering Fire Captain arrives to extinguish any fires, Mrs Martin lusts after him conspicuously while Mary the maid climbs onto a chair to recite her fire poem with extravagant passion. Between metaphorical main courses we guests are invited to put on our blindfolds. Unseen, the cast move around the room speaking words and phrases with a ‘cha’ sound. They glide up and speak a word over your shoulder, then breathe gently on you. It is not nearly as creepy as it sounds, and would even be soothing if they didn’t keep puncturing the Frenchness with comedy ‘cha’ words like ‘Chaka Khan’.
Ionesco’s dialogue had me grinning all the way through the show, but there was added delight in being able to see every tiny facial tic and gesture from the performers, none of whom missed a single beat. From start to finish, the company maintained an atmosphere of controlled hysteria; it felt as though it might at any minute tip over the edge into complete insanity. I had never seen Ionesco’s work on stage before. Marianne Badrichani and the Company have left me in the awkward position of wanting now to see all of it, while fearing that no conventionally staged production will ever live up to their own immersive feast.
Director: Marianne Badrichani
Author: Based on fragments from Eugène Ionesco’s works
Adapted By: Marianne Badrichani and Edith Vernes
Booking Until: 1 April 2017
Booking Link: https://www.designmynight.com/london/whats-on/theatre/ionesco-dinner-at-the-smiths