This review will consider NewPlay Productions’s Food, written by Steve Rodgers, directed by Cressida Brown, and performed at the Finborough Theatre in London.
On entering the performance space, I had high hopes. The traverse staging and tight kitchen set tied well with the voyeuristic quality of watching Elma (Emma Playfair) cook in silence under the household sounds of a playing radio. This really leant to an intimate feel, successfully projective of the narrative’s particular focus on emotions. However, this success was swiftly followed by an awfully dramatic transition: a sudden light change and a wide-eyed glare forward from Playfair, followed by a ghostly skulk of an entrance from Nancy (Lily Newbury-Freeman). A blackout, and the two have changed positions, Newbury-Freeman now finding herself in the centre of the kitchenette, and Playfair staring on from the side in shock. Whilst I understand this to have been a visual representation of Nancy’s unexpected re-entrance into Elma’s life, it was a poor execution, feeling out-of-place and overdramatic.
This sense of overdrama was something present throughout the performance. Yet, ironically, characters felt underperformed and static. I found the style to be very convoluted and confused, jumping from mime to physical movement to realistic dialogue to an immersive monologuing, etc. It was difficult to absorb the action because of this — made clear by the visible loss of spectator engagement throughout the performance’s duration. The only character that felt coherent was that of Hakan (Scott Karim). Karim’s characterisation was superb, accentuated furthermore by other small but well-transformed roles he played throughout the latter part of the play. Whilst his entrance was written quite awkwardly — drawing attention to itself by him communicating with Nancy and Elma mid-scene, almost metatheatrically — it did set up a clear performer-spectator relationship to be returned to throughout the performance. This was recurrent, making his character accessible and coherent.
However, the same cannot be said for the characters of Nancy and Elma. Not only were they lost in stylised movement but because of their consistently low characterisation. Loud and aggressive movements from both performers during physical scenes was met with a sense of fallibility. That is to say, both seemed to be not quite in the moment, wooden, bland. The emotions they were presenting weren’t quite there, and everything seemed to be shouty or quick. Whilst this was slightly less the case for Playfair, this worsened throughout for Newbury-Freeman.
One moment of high potential was a scene wherein we see Nancy sprawl her body repetitively across the kitchen appliances in a dark, sexual submission. This continued slowly and ceaselessly in concurrence with Elma’s narration and was very poignant and successful, drawing audience attention well. It is the subtlety that worked so well in this scene. Though quite broad in its gesture, its allusions to action, rather than the literal running/panting/fighting locatable in nearly every other scene, is what made it so effective and fruitful.
Another thing I found particularly effective in this performance was the use of the ladders. These created dimension to the performance, alluding to a higher floor which we could not see but had to imagine, where showers and bedrooms existed. The use I found most intriguing, though, came about in the use of staged absence. Characters who were not in the scene took to the ladders, facing away from the action, eyes glazed. Though simple, I felt this created a nice visual dynamic and hinted at the absent characters’ emotions, giving the scenes texture and background. Although, this was perhaps overused somewhat towards the end.
What I found most baffling was the reason for the food. Other than it being set in a kitchen and referred to slightly in the characters’ anecdotes, the concentration on food felt non-existent. And, being that the play is called Food, and that it was used in the very setup of the performance, I thought that more value should have been applied to it. There was a lot of potential to work with the sonic and aromatic textures of food; perhaps even telling the story through the medium of food, as opposed to mime, would have been much stronger as a route for this play. The exchanges of bread, for example, between the audience and performers towards the end of the play would then have had more of an effect. But, as it stood, it felt out-of-place and as though it had been put in for the sake of a sweet charm or small thrill.
Overall, this performance lacked a lot of momentum, particularly due to the eclectic performance style but also the lack of character development, both in plot and in performance.
“A crude and eclectic direction for a potentially sensual play.”