Attic Theatre’s latest culinary delight. “Just Supper” is as “finely fine as a fine thingy…” but be warned; “Its a bit weird though, isn’t it?”

Think of a play based around a supper party and “Abigail’s Party” may come to mind. This production certainly stands favourable comparison with Mike Leigh’s work, but is closer in feel to “High Hopes” or “Another Year”,  with believably fallible characters responding to the moral dilemmas which surround them.

Maddie [Melanie Davies] is your hostess for the evening, but when we first meet her, she is clearly a stressed driver with no sat-nav to guide her. It is Bob, her husband who has instigated this little gathering and of course, he is already dead at the wheel. So why has he been so insistent that this particular group of people gather together after his cremation? What are his specific instructions that they must follow?  Maddie herself has no idea. After all; “they are not my friends…” not the best recipe for a supper.

It seems that Maddie’s sister  Roni [Claire Woolley] has been dealt a somewhat unsatisfactory hand by fate, but maintains a capacity to see the best in people. A feminist yes; conscious of the damage a patriarchal system has wreaked on both her sex and the planet, but who resists the temptation to see men as stereotypes. She provides Maddie with her support system.  Bob’s too, as it transpires. She has been entrusted with his message, which is to be delivered from beyond his casket, designed and hand painted by Dee. 

Dee [Deborah Messenger] is a generous, creative dynamo with diverse entrepreneurial enthusiasms. Given the right opportunity and a degree of focus which alas, may forever elude her, she could single-handedly turn West Wales into an economic powerhouse; setting up workshops on any theme from badge-making for women, to the production of log burner baskets and of course decorated boxes for humanist ceremonies…

Tom [Rodney Davis] is a Bluff rock climber as impervious to the etiquette of social gatherings as the Idwal slabs he hacks into to fix a piton. With a fine line in grudging tribute “Bob was a good man -everyone respected him -though not as a rock climber of course”,  he is  a  euphemism-free zone who can mansplain for Britain. Supremely self confident, one can picture him suspended on a Snowdonia rock face. A mountaineer with just one Achilles heel -or rather, back…

Pru [Louise Weldon]  ”I am being so lovely“  is  every bit as socially graceless as Tom, but her concerns are more elevated than any of his conquered peaks. “Better to think of the planet and not yourself”; “Why drive, when you can catch public transport?” Her moral inflexibility is admirable while her priggishness undercuts any sympathy for her at every turn. Maddie’s  difficult choice between raising a family and maintaining her political activism is answered with a cold, thoughtless, “same old story; you were left holding the baby -bad luck!” One can simultaneously sympathise completely with her moral stance and yet hope never to have to spend five minutes in her company.

Clive [John Franks] is a Knight of the realm and a national treasure. Think Attenborough here. Described as “passionate” , he is a media phenomenon with the ability to make people plant trees in an attempt to capture carbon and green over the world. A celebrity eco-warrior in the corner of every sitting room on the small screen, but can all his activities offset his own carbon footprint and his runaway accumulation of air miles?  Pru recalls an earlier meeting with him and sneers, “and you flew in to.. provide support..” Is he all he appears to be?

Adie [Semele Xerri] is Pru’s gift from God; delivered to her at the end of act one. She proves herself to be more logical than her dog collar might at first suggest. As Maddie observes, the fact that by ‘crashing’ the party uninvited, she is in a unique position of not having been manipulated by the late Bob and can cast an objective eye over his extreme masterplan.

By the end of act one, these unstable, combustible ingredients have been assembled. Act two will see the touch paper ignited… at 8 o’clock, from which time Bob himself [Colin Partridge] will quite literally loom over the second half, outlining a call to action at once hilariously ludicrous and yet strangely appealing. It might just work…

Of course the script doesn’t provide all the answers to life’s great questions. After all, it only skirts around the potential joys of last-minute sex. It can’t satisfactorily explain why chores which a woman regards as routine become elevated to the heights of a ceremonial when performed by a man [all you barbecue-ers take note; there is a cooker in the kitchen for you to use on the other 362 days of the year..]  And hard-line feminists may wince to hear that a woman who wants a baby more than anything else in the world doesn’t care what surname she or it will labour under through life. It does however clarify why Llangrannog is a far better location for ending it all than Poppit Sands. 

More significantly, it asks us to imagine what mainstream Western art might have looked like if women had been allowed to be artists earlier in time and offers a tantalising glimpse into a cultural world of galleries filled with felting, spinning or knitting -if men had crafted in those media instead of moving coloured pigments around canvas, or sculpting in stone and bronze. Or, put another way; what might  the lie of  the cultural and economic landscape now be if our established economic system based on the impediment of sexual difference and reproduction roles in which “men take the space and women slot into whatever is left”, had been moulded by the women?

Judging by the amount of  knowing head-nodding from sections of the female audience around me this evening, this dialogue between the characters is thoroughly authentic. The conversation crackles with energy and vibrant wit. These are people who think; they care about the important social and political matrix they are embedded in, but they still have immense fun together. Yes, change for the ‘second sex’ may be  “verrrreee sloooowww”, but they are going to have a bloody good try at pushing it along. Besides; they have a whole planet to save.

Poor plodding males like me who think they have become ‘new men’ because they have incorporated the title ‘Ms.’ into their lexicon are in for an awakening, as are the blokes who confuse diatribe with dialogue and insist on textbook-derived explanations for any phenomenon for which they have no direct lived experience.

The battle of the sexes is an ingredient in this incendiary mix -but only one, and anyway, we have seen that Melanie Davies is not a playwright to take any path well travelled. Anyone who remembers ‘Power and Petticoats’ will know just how thoughtfully crafted and cliché-averse her writing is. She is not afraid to lead her audience into edgy territory, but the quality of dialogue never falters. Recalling a climbing axe with an horrendous pet name provokes the memorably stylish double negative rejoinder, “People didn’t pretend not to be racist in  the eighties”; as pithy and accurate a comment on that decade as I can think of. She allows her increasingly uncomfortable audience to jump from the oncoming car crash of having to sit through an off-the-spectrum joke,- but only at the last second.

So many plays use the device of a group meeting to construct a situation where frictions can escalate and drive the narrative. There is a set-up, a plot line and a denouement, neatly  bookended; packaged with all threads neatly  trimmed, and there is nothing wrong with that, except real life doesn’t operate within set boundaries. Davies [I now hesitate to use the prefix, Ms.] presents us with characters who have led their lives before the point at which we meet them; they will continue to live their lives after the auditorium has emptied. We have only shared a couple of hours in their company. There are even comments left hanging loose from the script to suggest that these people have personal histories which are not particularly relevant to the current narrative; unusual in theatre. Dee’s comment that “You were ill at the time weren’t you Maddie?” is batted away with a flick of the wrist, and we are left to ponder why Bob preferred  Roni’s company on an eco-activism event to that of his wife… these are morsels worth pursuing, but they are left untouched on the plate.

A word on the playing and direction. It is a joy, when as a member of the audience, ones eyes can rove across the ensemble in any scene and see their individual responses to the conversations around them as if it were the first time they had heard those sentences uttered, or seen this or  that gesture being made. Their sense of engagement with each other is palpable from the sixth row. This is naturalistic playing of the very highest order.; everything timed to perfection. Personal highlights? Pru’s delicious inability to contain her unalloyed joy when Adie finally arrives, and  Roni and Clive’s first meeting, which is a perfectly played moment of emotional restraint suggesting everything about a past friendship/relationship which was curtailed for some unspecified reason, without either actor actually spelling out anything at all. 

So yet another captivating evening of theatre which should see everyone involved now briefly basking in the glow of another success, before thinking about touring this production. After all; why should we in West Wales be the only fortunate recipients of such quality entertainment? Me?  I’m going to enroll on Dee’s workshop. My partner thinks a mansplainer button badge would suit me perfectly…

Glenn ibbitson     August 17th 2022

Attic Theatre, Cawdor Hall, Newcastle Emlyn, Carms.

AUG 17 AT 7:30 PM – AUG 20 AT 7:30 PM

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