To make the perfect martini you must mix equal parts gin and vermouth, and then serve it in a lightly chilled glass with an olive garnish to finish. Similar levels of perfection were achieved by pairing T.S Eliott’s The Cocktail Party with the wonderfully ornate and characterful Print Room in Notting Hill; this was a prime example of programmers matching a production to its ideal venue. The Print Room, formerly The Coronet is currently undergoing renovation to restore this gem of a theatre to its former glory. For the time being, the stalls have been converted into a makeshift velvet-draped prohibtion-esque piano bar, complete with a treasure trove of trinkets. Of course it will come as no great surprise that echoing the play’s title, all of the classic cocktails are a very firm fixture on the menu.
The Chamberlaynes are throwing a cocktail party, however on the morning of their soiree Edward’s wife, Lavinia Chamberlayne, goes missing. Panicked and confused, and a straight-laced, archetypal English gentleman, Edward (Richard Dempsey) attempts to call off the party, however there are a few guests that he isn’t able to contact in time. When the unwanted stragglers do arrive polite small talk soon turns to uncomfortable probing questions about Lavinia’s absence, needless to say a feeble excuses of a fictitious aunt suddenly being taken ill in the country fails to satisfy the inquisitors.
T.S Eliot’s script is acerbically witty and his flair for comedic turn of phrase is encapsulated in the lovely eccentric Julia Shuttlewaite (who is brought to life exquisitely by the inimitable Marcia Warren). Forever with a glass of champagne in hand, Julia never seems to detect when she has overstayed her welcome. When she does finally depart from the gathering, she returns multiple times with transparent excuses such as having misplaced her spectacles – that she later reveals only have one lens, or returning to collect her umbrella or to invite Edward round for dinner. From her opening line Warren has the audience in the palm of her melodramatic hand and when she exits the stage, the crowd hanker for her swift return.
Alongside humourous moments and ever flowing beverages The Cocktail Party does touch upon some darker sides of the human condition. For instance, one thematic thread that reverberates throughout the work is the idea of the loss of identity during marriage. Edward feels that, although he was married to Lavinia for 5 years, he begins to question if he ever really knew the real her and whether, in turn, during their marriage he also began to lose his own sense of self. As this motif is also mirrored in other characters within the work you can’t help but feel that T.S Eliot is erring on the side of being intensely didactic. In parts The Cocktail Party, is difficult to digest, as it is so jam-packed with imagery, societal observations and irony – you almost feel like it is a text you need to study and read multiple times to be able to fully understand the magnitude of the piece.
At two hours and 40 minutes, The Cocktail Party could benefit with some shaping and tightening in parts. That said, it a glorious work of art with a superb cast, against the sublime backdrop of the The Print Room. Every once in a while you see something that reminds you why you fell in love with theatre, for me this was the The Cocktail Party. As T.S himself once said: “there is nothing quite so stimulating as a strong dry martini”.
The Cocktail Party is playing at The Print Room until 10 October. For tickets and more information, see the Print Room website. Photo by Marc Brenner.