“No human being is worth £9m a year. Why do you get all that money?”
Actor and writer Oliver Cotton speaks on behalf of a generation struggling under debt in his tasty new play, Dessert, which has tempted Trevor Nunn into the fringe Southwark Playhouse to direct.
It pitches the audience into the heart of an ethical and moral minefield that will inevitably foster furious debate in the bar afterwards.
Dessert’s incendiary dialogue attacks that overworked theme of Teflon coated city sharks and investment bankers pocketing obscene bonuses at the expense of the workers.
It’s likely to leave some theatre-goers richly fulfilled and others with indigestion.
He makes some valid points but, here’s me pitching in my two pennyworth, I can’t help siding with the protagonist, uber wealthy company boss Sir Hugh Fennell (I know, I know, I really shouldn’t) who refuses to apologise for being rich and successful.
The guy wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Both he and his wife, Gill (Alexandra Gilbreath), came from very humble beginnings and, we assume through sheer hard work, long hours, and luck, are now filthy rich and able to indulge in the sort of opulent lifestyle most of us can only dream about.
He thinks nothing of spending £250,000 on a small painting. He has homes, cars, the works, reaping the rewards for a successful career.
But, and Philip Green is never far away from our thoughts although any City CEO would probably fit the bill, Cotton is on the attack. He’s determined that Fennell’s sort should get their just desserts.
“Why do you want so very, very, very much money?” he’s asked.
Dessert is set over the crumbs, discarded napkins and almost empty wine glasses of a dinner party in the Fennells’ sumptuous country home.
The walls are adorned with old masters, an extravagant crystal chandelier illuminates the room and Gill and Hugh are entertaining their equally rich American friends, investment banker Wesley Barnes and his ditsy blonde wife Meredith (Teresa Banham).
The conversation sounds mind-numbingly dull until the lights go out and the evening takes a thrilling and unexpected turn for the worst.
An uninvited guest has gatecrashed. Former Lance Corporal Eddie Williams, complete with a barely controllable rage at life’s inequalities, and a prosthetic leg (courtesy of a tour in Afghanistan), has launched a guerrilla offensive determined to right a wrong.
From this point on the production plunges into cliché after cliché. We’ve heard all the arguments before, we’ve all gasped at the shameless and immoral earnings and bonuses paid out in banking. Hell, aren’t we all a teeniest bit jealous that we can’t have some of that?
Stephen Hagan’s crusading Robin Hood in desert fatigues is looking for a more even distribution of wealth and is determined to take it the easy way – by robbing the rich.
“We don’t understand why,” he rages. “The doctors, teachers, nurses, soldiers don’t get a bonus for just doing their jobs. Why should you? Oh yes, it’s because you’re in finance.
“You get a bonus whether your company does well or badly. Everyone say’s it’s insane and an obscenity. You liquidate a company leaving investors penniless while you walk away with a pension pot worth £16m”.
Hagan may be the least recognisable talent on stage but he holds your attention throughout with a passionate and powerful performance on behalf of us, the common (poor) people.
Michael Simkins is at last given a meaty lead as Hugh Fennell and he makes the most of it, quietly seething as his life’s work – making money – is put on trial, before launching a lusty defence.
Stuart Milligan’s noisy banker, Wesley, is a kindred soul. Okay, he’s a smug bastard, a misogynist and obnoxious. But can we hold that against him?
“You see Wes and myself as the enemy simply because we are rich. What about the footballers and rock stars?” demands an angry Hugh.
The debate occasionally swerves into unnecessary farce with the inclusion of Roger,Graham Turner’s former city whizz kid now a burned out wreck working as the Fennell’s man about the house.
And Nunn really ought to have tried to get his writer to shave about 30 minutes off the length to avoid an interval which wrecks the mounting tension.
It’s not as though it needs to be two hours long. Some repetitive scenes seem to be unnecessary courses, during this dinner party from hell, designed to give the audience nothing but bloat.
Cotton is riding the zeitgeist with this plot but you can’t help feeling that he may have just missed the final course and is simply providing the doggy bags to a banquet now over.
Dessert runs at Southwark Playhouse until August 5.
Oliver Cotton piles on the clichés in the tasty dining party play, Dessert, which may leave some theatre-goers richly fulfilled and others with indigestion.