Dinner With Groucho – The Mac, Belfast – Review
by Cathy Brown
Date:5 Oct – 9 Oct 2022
Dinner With Groucho by Frank McGuinness, presented by b*spoke theatre company at The MAC, Belfast
Photo by Ros Kavanagh
In the 1960s, the unlikely pair of Nobel Prize-winning poet TS Eliot and flamboyant movie star Groucho Marx maintained an epistolary relationship before meeting in real life. Frank McGuinness takes this meeting as the dramatic starting point for his new play Dinner With Groucho, which finds the two men seated in a surreal restaurant, overseen by a nameless Proprietor, who keeps them fully topped up on champagne throughout the evening. There are echoes of Beckett and even of Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as the two parry, argue and banter their way through this strangest of dinners.
Their chat features an enjoyable riff on King Lear, positing an alternative reading of the play whereby Cordelia is actually a boy and the Lear family is plagued by high cholesterol. Well-appointed magic tricks proliferate the action and director Loveday Ingram punctuates the rather static action with several song and dance numbers, which are entertaining but add little to the overall narrative.
Hints to what is really going on are subtly peppered throughout the play. There appear to be no other customers in the restaurant and ordered food never materialises. The two men are depicted as puppets under the control of the proprietor, who never seems to be there when they need her. However, as their meal comes to an end, the philosophical motivation of McGuinness’s writing becomes evident. When it is revealed, it is a potent surprise, effectively staged. By asking the audience to question everything that has gone before, McGuinness calls to mind a line from Eliot’s The Waste Land – ‘I was neither/ living nor dead, and I knew nothing’.
For a production centred on wordplay, this is a play to be read as much as to be watched, filled as it is with literary allusions to Shakespeare, Eugene O’Neill and TS Eliot himself. Some of that is lost in the breakneck speed of performance, which has some pacing and performance issues. Enjoyment also relies on strong literary knowledge on the part of the audience, which may affect the response to the play.
Ingrid Craigie steals the show with a commanding performance as the Proprietor of the mysterious restaurant, finding the pathos and emotion in the witty script. Greg Hicks nicely captures the world-weary intelligence and easy charisma of Eliot, while Ian Bartholomew mimics Groucho’s mannerisms to a tee but never really gets beyond the caricature to the heart of the man. Adam Wiltshire’s simple but striking set adds to the Beckettian feel of the evening, while Paul Keogan’s lighting which veers from star-strewn skies to headlights trained on the audience, emphasises both the melancholy and the dramatic.
Dinner with Groucho ultimately is a play about ageing and legacy. What will be remembered after we are gone? For Eliot and Marx, the answer is clear, words and wit, and Dinner with Groucho is a welcome addition to the McGuinness canon.