Who wrote the first ‘dinner party from hell’ drama? Shakespeare had a couple of stabs with Titus Andronicus and the banquet scene in Macbeth where Banquo’s ghost arrives to ruin a perfectly good evening. Ovid told of Procne who killed her son, Itys, and served him up in a pie to her husband Tereus. And it was Aeschylus, as I recall, who originated the genre with Prometheus Vinctus in which the main character is also the main course. The latest attempt, Amongst Friends by April De Angelis, is set in a yuppie dream-home which a tabloid hack and her ex-MP husband are keen to show off to their old chums; one’s a cancer nurse, the other an addiction counsellor with a serious addiction. What unites them is a cynical, over-competitive world view. And you might ask yourself why this quartet of smug, envious, back-biting snobs call themselves ‘friends’ at all. Well, I’ve found it’s best to have smug, envious, back-biting snobs as friends because the alternative is so much worse.
The party is just getting started when Shelley arrives, an uninvited chav from a nearby tower block, and demands a contribution of five grand for a fund she’s established to commemorate the life of her dead son. Improbable? Yes, and it gets weirder still when the boy’s unrestful spirit takes possession of his mother and mockingly addresses the assembled guests. Could Shelley be a fraud and her visions fake?
In the end it doesn’t matter. The play has a charming texture, an absolutely wonderful design and a winning spirit of playful satire that compel one to overlook its structural faults. The cast are excellent, particularly Helen Baxendale whose stony softness is just right for a Blairite newspaper hack, and Aden Gillett offers good support as a platitude-spouting New Labour smoothie. De Angelis crams the script with witty treats. When the home-delivered Congolese food arrives, Shelley tucks in with, ‘I could eat a scabby donkey.’ The play isn’t quite cut- glass perfection but it’s a serviceable addition to the range.
At the Duchess there’s a Ronald Harwood double about musicians during the Third Reich. In Taking Sides an American army investigator quizzes Hitler’s favourite conductor, Furtwängler, about his involvement with the bad guys. This has the makings of an acute moral and psychological thriller: the musical genius with a dark past pitched against the virtuous but unimaginative army copper. What’s missing is any subtlety or psychological layering. The army man is a bullying Milwaukee philistine convinced of his quarry’s guilt. Because he’s American he says things like ‘swell’ and ‘son of a gun’. And swears a lot. Furtwängler is a formulaic German virtuoso. He’s all frosty grandeur and sub-Wagnerian guff about music and its eternal wish to grasp the essence of the human soul. Or something like that. Michael Pennington does his best to bring some humanity to this plasticine miniature but all he can do is frown, scratch his hair and put on that look of exquisitely pained forbearance that Magnus Magnusson might have worn after asking, ‘Name the second book of the Old Testament’, and hearing ‘Pass’.
The second play, about Richard Strauss’s friendliness with certain top Nazis, is lighter, funnier and better all round. The story unfolds before our eyes, rather than being dredged up from the filthy pond of the past. There’s a great opening gag. Enter Strauss, agitated. ‘I’m dying!’ Mrs Strauss, ‘Not again.’ The hot-and-cold relationship between the composer and his Jewish librettist, Stefan Zweig, is traced with warmth and good humour, but when the drama deepens Harwood’s lack of range lets him down. His plays invariably peak with an attempted howl of Shakespearean anguish, which usually comes out as a peal of wine-glass-shattering self-pity. Strauss mounts to his moment of tragic grief when contemplating Zweig’s suicide. ‘I loved that man!’ he shrieks through floods of brine. ‘Why? Why?’ he bawls. ‘Why? Why?’ A character in a play might perhaps supply an answer rather than just repeating the question. And in Taking Sides when Furtwängler is forced to examine the consequences of conducting music for the Nazis, he wails, ‘It is not just! It is not fair!’ Yes. We know. Anything to add? Afraid not. Poor old Furtwängler vomits into a waste paper basket and exits the action. Not an illuminating climax.
There’s nothing really wrong with these plays. Harwood does the research, shapes the drama, and puts it on stage. But there’s no fire, daring, poetry or depth here. Are they dull? They’re certainly very beige.