COOKING WITH ELVIS
Derby Theatre, Tuesday 30th April, 2013
Derby Theatre puts itself on the theatrical map with this production of Lea Hall’s raucous black comedy, the theatre’s first home-produced show. The venue has a history of excellence in its produced work (I remember some superb Sondheims, astonishing Ayckbourns, and a gem of a Treasure Island) but with the recent chequered past now firmly behind it, the place will go from strength to strength if the quality of this production is anything to go by.
The action takes place in a suburban house, gloriously depicted in Hayley Grindle’s two-storey set: a living room and kitchen with stairs leading up to a landing and a teenager’s bedroom. The teenager is Jill, our narrator and scene-announcer for the evening. Played with verve by Laura Elsworthy, Jill is a 14 year-old with an interest in cookery that borders on obsession. She despairs of her English teacher mother, who glams herself up and brings home strange men to satisfy her sexual needs. Polly Lister is ‘Mam’, a plain-speaking bully, masking her guilt and vulnerability with mouthing-off and heavy drinking. The strange man she brings home at the start of the play is Stuart (Adam Barlow) who works in a cake factory. Within seconds she has ordered him to strip to his underpants – this is no subtle comedy of manners, but an in-your-face sex comedy with graphic scenes and colourful language. It is absolutely hilarious.
Why does Mam bring these creatures home? The answer is painfully present in the shape of her paralysed husband. Brain-damaged in a car accident, Dad can do nothing for himself, and has to be brought on and (nudge, wink) brought off. It’s a sobering portrayal from Jack Lord but then – and this lifts the piece out of the macabre – Dad has a nifty line in Elvis Presley impersonation. He springs from his chair to link and underscore scenes with songs of The King in a range of impressive outfits. Jack Lord is nothing short of sublime.
Mark Babych pitches the tone just right and directs his excellent quartet to keep energy levels high and the characterisations just short of caricature. This kind of farcical, rather outré plot requires a broad style of playing, but also we have to accept and go along with these characters for the ride or else it would just descend into prurience and bad taste. Adam Barlow’s Stuart is sweet – for a drip – and he becomes both predator and prey as he worms his way under the table (well, on top of it!); Polly Lister is fierce and brittle, but the evening belongs to Laura Elsworthy as the young girl who goes through a rite of passage in less than ideal circumstances, guiding us from scene to scene and setting the tone for the entire piece.
The play is a kind of mash-up of Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane and Dennis Potter’s Brimstone & Treacle in terms of content and delivery, and yet has a charm of its own. Beyond the foul language and the sex on the dining table, there is real heart to the piece, and a mother and daughter who both experience a healing. Life’s not about the tragedies, Jill concludes, it’s about the tiny moments that keep us going in the dark, the smiles.
By the curtain call, you will be grinning and clapping along to Jack Lord’s closing number. You may even be on your feet and joining in the party. It is shows of this calibre that keep us going in the dark.