Glasshouse, Battersea Arts Centre

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Ever been to one of those dinner parties where it feels like people just keep saying the same thing? At The Honest Crowd’s surreal culinary experience, they actually do. Here, the dinner guests are bludgeoned with small talk and the anecdotes are set to repeat. It’s like being stuck inside a DVD, relentlessly rewinding, fast-forwarding, pausing and skipping.

Glasshouse starts ordinarily enough. After being led into one of BAC’s many small side rooms, we seat overselves at a series of tables arranged in a square, facing one another across the gap in the centre. Our places are laid with plates, serviettes, glasses of wine. Five performers are seated in our midst, while a waitress lingers at the edge of the room. And then the conversation starts, following a plausibly familiar path as the guests discuss wine, films, quirky stories on the news. In fact, everything is pointedly normal; even the acting style is understated, while the audience’s gradual sips of wine lull us into the rhythm of a recognisable social situation. We know what’s going on here – we can do this.

Of course, as most of us probably anticipate even as we enjoy our wine, there’s a lot more to Glasshouse than social ritual. Suddenly, the conversation is rudely truncated and reset. We hear the same questions, the same answers, the same laughs at exactly the same moments. From this moment onwards, the same snippet of prosaic conversation is played out again and again in seemingly endless, grating variations, as the circling waitress pours wine into overflowing glasses and adds more and more ridiculous items to the guests’ plates – lemons, grass, chili peppers, sponges. The dialogue jumps and intercuts, skittering like a broken record, while the performers’ table manners become more and more repulsive. Grass is flung across the table and saliva oozes down chins.

Throughout this surreal spectacle, every last giggle, gasp and grimace of our fellow audience members is deliberately visible across the room. Although the level of audience involvement could be more carefully thought through (our role in this space and in the bizarre universe of the characters is not entirely clear, while I could feel irritation radiating from the actor next to me when I dared to ask him to pass the butter), our arrangement within the space is cannily calculated for maximum impact. Just as the increasingly animalistic habits of the actors reveal something uglier beneath the gloss of small talk, perhaps our reactions reveal something about us as they catch us off guard.

The piece’s implicit nods to absurdism and its borrowed elements of live art – putting the performers through genuine physical ordeals before our eyes – might be more obvious reference points, but what I find myself reminded of is Cheek by Jowl’s recent production of Ubu Roi. Framing the crude extremes of Alfred Jarry’s text within a teenage boy’s frustrated fantasy, the company used this disruptive narrative as a sort of theatrical grenade thrown into the centre of a pristine dinner party, which carried on blithely amid the accumulating mess of the production. The Honest Crowd show the same stubborn, illogical attachment to social norms while everything else unravels around them, simultaneously upturning the very conventions they cling to.

At the same time as it decimates its social setting, however, Glasshouse is in danger of pulverising its point – if, indeed, it seeks to make one. Perhaps the point, if there is any, is the sheer, ridiculous futility of these social routines, exposing the emptiness of the words we eat up as hungrily as the gourmet cuisine. Like Ubu’s oblivious guests, we sip wine and trade anecdotes while the world crashes down around us. This implicit comment on vacuous middle class dinner party culture might not be new, but the mess and vigour of its delivery makes it difficult to forget in a hurry.

Photo: Ludo Des Cognets.

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