Sometimes critics go to the theatre hoping to evaluate a play in its fully-formed three-dimensional entirety, sometimes you feel like a supply teacher marking homework. Tonight was a homework night. Not that Alison “A J” Evans’ first-performed play The Supper Party is a lazy or shoddy piece of work deserving of a dismissive C minus: indeed you could accuse her of trying too hard since it’s a fusion of so many ideas, tropes and suggestive references to real people and situations that the stage feels overcrowded and the plot needlessly dense.

Take the characters: we’re in the home of a glossy intellectual couple played by Gately Freeman and a plausibly aristocratic Emma Vansittart. He’s a logorrhoeic wordsmith whose plays borrow heavily from T S Eliot and Kafka, she’s a breathless and titled “lady novelist” whose historical fiction is popular on the bedside tables of Weybridge and whose recent life of Elizabeth I owes more to febrile imagination than academic research. If that’s not closely modelled on Harold Pinter and Antonia Fraser – incidentally two of the most humourless people I ever shared a table with – I’d be surprised, although perhaps from fear of litigation, Evans also credits her playwright with the authorship of “The Warbling Sleuth”: a psoriasis-riddled TV series, to suggest Dennis Potter.

Next up is a controversial Irish writer “Enid O’Donnell”, whose books have been banned in her homeland, a passionate red-haired student of Byron and Tolstoy, and here I enjoyed Maxine Howard’s careful phrasing and modulated Munster accent bringing us ever closer to what’s almost certainly Edna O’Brien. There’s a coterie of bitchy academic and theatrical old queens who could have been indistinguishable were it not for the contrast between Seamus Newham’s enjoyably bombastic performance as theatrical knight Rudolph Treglown and Rufus Graham’s loosely-elasticated Scottish inflections as soured academic Dr Andrew Harper.

Pivotal to the action is a former girlfriend of the playwright and on which liaison his most successful play was based: Jane, a once-formidable Times and Guardian journalist who writes, to his chagrin, largely about her son whom she anonymizes as “the boy”. She’s harder to skewer, although Janice Turner writes on “women’s issues” for both papers, this one feels toughened in Tessa Wood’s edgy performance: but then I remembered meeting Cosmopolitan’s agony aunt and formidably fierce journo Irma Kurtz on holiday in India with her lanky son whom she’d referred to frequently and not always kindly in her column by a pseudonym. “And this must be ‘Bigfoot’ … “, I said innocently, and saw the over-tall teenager crumble visibly under the hated nickname. Thus the naming and public shaming of Jane’s son, Ludo, colours and invigorates the whole of the second act as he rebels against the bullying he underwent at school and his abuse as a comic ingredient in his mum’s column by going on a rampage to expose the actual abuse he suffered, aged 15, from at least one of the elderly gentlemen at the supper party ,and savaging each of the senior guests in turn.

Here’s where the plotting’s too convenient: whether an abused child would find the confidence three years after the incident to accuse and condemn his assailant so vehemently in public is not typical of those coming forward in the current Savile-related enquiries which give this play an unexpected sharpness. Nor is it likely all his tormentors would be gathered in the same room at the time of his arrival. The involvement of two minor young characters – an actress playing the “Jane” role in a revival of Hector’s play, and a young man who may be either a novelist or a poet or a journalist, or none of these, is never satisfactorily resolved.

The directing, by James Beedham, is pedestrian and points up some clunking implausibilities in the script: the actual supper is served, unrealistically, in an adjacent room, necessitating a lot of trooping on and off of the over-large cast to make way for the essential duologues which further the narrative. The seeds of Ludo’s disruptive personality are sown too crudely, and his arrival is deferred too long. An hors d’oeuvre of “Canada Geese tongues” is so improbable as to cause derisory laughter in the audience; no-one makes up a bed for a six-foot-one actor on a four-foot-six sofa; there’s an old-fashioned “dial” telephone but no other indications that this may not be an entirely contemporary piece unless you count the references to a ‘lemon posset’ dessert which sounds like vintage Fanny Cradock, and the predatory seduction of the young poet/author by Lady Cynthia is clumsily handled and included only for balance with the predominantly homosexual paedophilia of the central theme.

Despite its flaws, the play held my attention throughout, and with development it must have a value beyond this fringe production because I kept re-casting it in my head with Michael Gambon as the dramatist and maybe Maria Aitken or Eileen Atkins as his wife, and definitely Frances Barber as the pungent journalist Jane.

Although the dialogue contains a lot of F R Leavis-style dissection of the role of the dramatist, the author and the journalist, what the argument boils down to is whether a playwright is more or less entitled than a newspaper columnist to use his friends and their situations as source material for his work. Discuss. But don’t take two hours to do it.

Date reviewed: Friday 2nd November 2012

One Stop ArtsOriginally published on One Stop Arts.