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Review: Dessert (Southwark Playhouse)

Trevor Nunn directs Oliver Cotton's latest show, dissecting the five per cent

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Some theatre shares its politics in stealth mode. In monologues bristling with metaphor. In loaded set designs. And some theatre slaps it right on the posters.

Walking into the auditorium, past images of a cake iced with a number five, out of which a tiny slice has been cut and iced with a 95, there's no mistaking what this play is about: how five per cent of the world's population enjoys 95 per cent of its wealth. The tagline reads: "How big a slice do you deserve?"

The play itself is just as brazen, and there's nothing wrong with that. In our current political Twilight Zone, it's a wonder every UK stage isn't aflame with agit prop theatre. But while Oliver Cotton's writing is passionate and pertinent, it also feels, at times, a touch too polemical.

Hugh, a multimillionaire financier, and his wife Gill, are hosting a dinner party for their equally affluent friends, Wesley and Meredith. They're soon joined by Eddie, a man with a modest income and a very personal gripe about one of Hugh's business decisions. What follows is an exploration of wealth, worth and morality.

Cotton's script is sharp, bleakly funny and – without giving too much away – includes stakes high enough to keep us gripped through some lengthy political rhetoric. But only just. Especially when that rhetoric too often dismisses a satisfyingly rigorous unpicking of the super rich's callousness in favour of white-hot rage.

Trevor Nunn's experienced direction helps. The pacing is perfect, the relationships on stage utterly convincing, and an easy naturalism is upheld throughout the script's more florid sections, albeit with a few too many spells of relentless shouting.

The characters are clear and crisp but not entirely without issue. My feminist hackles were raised when, by the end of the first act, neither Gill nor Meredith had said much of note. Or much at all, in fact. And while they're eventually revealed as symbols of empathy and conscience – prompting us to consider how a world run by women might look – I longed to hear more from them. Eddie shrugs off stereotypes with an impressive knowledge of fine art and the financial markets, but Hugh's character isn't afforded the same luxury. The slow revealing of his psyche would be much more compelling were he not such an out-and-out villain.

That's not to say that the performances aren't excellent – a perfect fusion of natural talent and serious expertise. Michael Simkins is especially electrifying as Hugh – his cool arrogance and casual dominance, even in the most threatening situations, creating an unnerving foreboding about how far he has to fall. Stephen Hagan has perfect comic timing as Eddie and brings a humanity that makes even his most extreme behaviour feel understandable.

This is a play of two personalities – intelligent political discussion meets high-stakes drama. And the blending of the two sends a clear message: the political and financial decisions of the five per cent have higher stakes than they could possibly imagine for the other 95. Here's hoping that this theatrical call to arms leads to some serious cake redistribution.

Dessert runs at Southwark Playhouse until 5 August.

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