Dinner 18:55 – Review – Leeds Playhouse Pop-Up Theatre
By Eve Luddington, February 2019
Six months ago, 18 strangers met for the first time to embark on a theatre project; eight of them are Millenials, ten are old enough to be their parents or grandparents. They’re from a range of backgrounds and cultures. Once a week until now they’ve come together to do ensemble-building exercises which one describes as ‘weird’, to share their stories and opinions, to improvise, to dance and make music together – guided and directed by Maggie de Ruyck for Leeds Playhouse’s Creative Engagement team. Dinner 18:55 is the uplifting result of the process.
As the audience enters, the performers are already on stage, chatting in small groups, and setting the informal tone of this 60 minute presentation. It’s a miscellany of scenes, some acted, some mimed to music and one, memorably, danced. There are musings on age and social expectations. There are several joyous, musical rhythm interludes created by the performers with cutlery and plastic bottles.
“Direct and unfrilly”
The thread running through the show is the truth of it: these people on stage are sharing events in their own lives and their feelings about them. They wear their own clothes and their props are stored in Perspex boxes on wheels which also function as tables. The back wall of the stage and its electric cables are exposed. Nothing is hidden or obscure. There are no gimmicks, just a group of people honestly expressing themselves. Dinner 18.55 is unpretentious and refreshing.
Maggie de Ruyck has effectively facilitated the group members to feel safe enough to reveal their vulnerabilities and share life experiences. They also show care and sensitivity towards each other, characteristic of a good drama process. One potential pitfall of such a process is that it becomes ‘therapy’ and, perhaps, self-indulgent. Dinner 18.55 avoids indulgence completely and, though the drama process was surely therapeutic, the product is an engaging theatre entertainment. It’s direct and unfrilly, it’s about sharing and communication, and never about ego.
The first story is one young man’s memory of eating dinner with his family. He offers to eat the naan bread his step-brother has refused. His step-mother forbids it. ‘Don’t we share in this family?’ he asks. ‘Not with you,’ she replies. It’s a simple story which hits us between the eyes because it’s shared by the young man to whom it happened. Later in the show, he expresses with raw intensity the anger and hurt he still holds in his heart from that dinner. That young man is brave, his impact powerful.
There’s comedy as well as heartbreak. One woman remembers the lead-up to Christmas in her family when her mother prepared a stinking concoction of herbs she called her ‘Special Brew’. She made all 11 of her children drink it. The explosive after-effects make for a hilarious dance. Needless to say, that family’s stomachs were so empty on Christmas Day that they could feast to their hearts’ delight.
Integral to the production is the support that has grown between group members. When one man mentions his loneliness at having no-one to share his mother’s fish soup recipe now, a younger woman comes and engages him in a mirroring exercise. Gradually, everyone on stage pairs up until all are involved in ‘Mirrors’, accompanied by a song about togetherness. ‘Mirrors’ is standard fare in drama workshops: here, it demonstrates beautifully drama’s capacity to bring people together to share and, sometimes, to transform experience. And, when the audience are offered copies of the fish soup recipe, we feel fully included. It’s one of the most touching moments of an evening filled with sentiment but not sentimentality.
At the end of the show, two of the ensemble ‘confess’ the generational prejudices they had when they began this process, six months ago. What they have discovered, they say, is that only age and experience separate young from old, minor matters compared with the common humanity that unites us. These 18 ‘strangers’ have become friends. Their enjoyment of each other and their work is infectious.
Dinner 18.55 played to a packed and attentive house of many ages and different ethnicities. In fact, it didn’t ‘play to’, it shared with. I wasn’t the only one who felt part of a special experience: it’s a long time since I’ve heard such wholehearted applause from an audience at the end of a show.
In troubled and divisive times, we desperately need the Arts and, particularly, this kind of work, to bring out the best in us. Director and Dramaturge, Maggie de Ruyck has used the tools of drama well. When this production is finished, the participants will remember the process and its transformative power.
images: Nick Singleton