The Thing That Came to Dinner, VAULT Festival

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by guest critic Maeve Campbell

If you are invited to a party, and the host tells you: “It’s going to be crazy,” don’t go. It will inevitably be really, really boring.

Waiting for the show to start in the cavernous, but thankfully warm, Pit at the Vaults, I overheard an audience member describe the upcoming show as, “Errm so I think it’s about this guy. You know the guy? The film director guy…that guy…you know John Carpenter?” Their friend responded with a shrug, to which they replied, “you’ve seen that film, ‘The Thing’, right? Yeah so that is what this is.” This was not necessarily an inaccurate description of James Carney’s The Thing that Came to Dinner a show that left me shrugging, too.

The show begins with the cast performing a cheesy movement sequence to synthy backing, possibly even taken from a Carpenter movie. The music is good and employed well as a recurring motif in Carney’s show, which seems to take as much from Agatha Christie as it did 1980’s camp horror flicks. But these movement moments occurred far too frequently, playing as repetitious padding to a pretty flabby narrative.

There is nothing wrong with school play aesthetics, cardboard sets, trainers under cocktail dresses and badly applied under-eye liner, in fact often it can be rather charming. Yet here there is a knowing tone to this predictable horror-mystery play that undermined any endearing scenographic mess. Clumsy performances and lazy directorial blocking don’t help this show, either. This kind of genre pastiche has been done so much better so many times before – the wonderfully silly sitcom ‘Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace’, which is nearly fifteen years old, is an example of when it’s right.

The show’s tone is clear when Carney – creator, writer, director, producer and star – presented a self-consciously awkward, non-verbal scene, which garners laughs from the crowd, but comes across as lazily conceived and self-indulgent. Also ill-conceived is an under-developed sexual harassment discourse that peppers the play’s relationship narrative and essentially made light of. One wonders whether in the wake of #MeToo, themes such as sexual aggression towards women should be dealt with on stage more thoughtfully.

At the end of the show, Carney delivers an obligatory out of character promotion for his other theatrical projects, and he thanks the audience for coming to see his “bizarre” show. This show, though, is bizarrely not bizarre enough. The concept was not bad, and there can be something pleasurable in watching people be properly silly on stage. Kudos must be given to some truly awful, in a good way, prop work. Perhaps, then the problems lay in a lack of confidence in lack-lustre material, and what manifests on stage seemed smug and cynical.

The Thing That Came to Dinner runs through 9 February.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

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