TS Eliot's 1949 play is like a pale imitation of Wilde.
The titular party, held by a boring man for his boring friends, takes a swerve for the metaphysical in TS Eliot’s parable of self-reformation and the terms of earthly salvation. Director Abbey Wright, hot off wobbly Stephen Merchant vehicle ‘The Mentalists’, has brought a rare-ish revival of the poet’s second most famous play to the Print Room in a sparse production that nevertheless fails to breathe air into Eliot’s pernickety and claustrophobic moral universe.
The usually magnetic Hilton McRae falls into a kind of languid recitation as the Unidentified Guest at the party, eventually revealed as the leader of a mystical cabal of world-righters, occasionally struggling with his vast and circuitous role. Marcia Warren makes an impression as doddery socialite Julia, but other performances, including Chloe Pirrie’s as ill-treated Celia, are downright stilted.
Surprisingly, it’s often Eliot’s writing that lets ‘The Cocktail Party’ down, with his society scenes in particular overburdened with weak jokes and paradoxes that feel like pale imitations of Wildean originals. The writing improves as things tilt toward the hermetic, but Eliot’s thinking seems even more vain and debased in symbols and salvation than it is in domesticity and sex.
Ultimately ‘The Cocktail Party’ expresses the worst kind of Anglican angst, that now just seems to be extraordinarily self-involved. There’s nothing vivid or profound in Eliot’s meticulous bookkeeping of the heart, or his fussy make-do-and-mending of the soul. Stewart Pringle