It’s a real shame that that the Bruiser Theatre Company’s production of Lee Hall’s Cooking with Elvis is so very good. I have in my critical arsenal seventy five insults but only fourteen compliments. I’m afraid I will be using all of the latter in this review, and possibly borrowing a few more from high-minded friends.
Cooking with Elvis tells the story of an Elvis impersonator (Stephen Beggs) cut down in his hip-swivelling prime by a car accident and left in a permanent vegetative state. He is cared for, after a fashion, by his alcoholic and anorexic wife, Mam (Jo Donnelly) and Jill (Nuala McGowan), his food-obsessed 14 year old daughter.
Jill narrates the drama, introducing each scene with glittering eyes and a rictus grin. It’s this insistence on the reality of an audience that is the frame-work for the piece.
Cooking with Elvis was originally written for radio and the audio cues have been kept, keenly trumpeted by Jill. The character describes the action of each forth-coming scene with unnatural glee.
It’s a great conceit to use Jill as a human title-card. She announces the action and allows the play to be as dark as the subject matter dictates, while maintaining a joyful lightness of touch.
It also allows for the mechanism of the cast breaking character to rearrange the set between scenes, scat-singing all the while, regardless of the emotional content of the preceding or following scenes. Thus Elvis is able to leap from his chair and belt out Vegas-karaoke versions of his hits, complete with Karate moves and a trade-mark guttural “Thangyewverymuch.”
The other two characters in the drama are Stewart (Shaun Blaney), a dim baker with a nice line in stolen Black Forest gateau and a propensity for stripping to his pants, and Stanley (Stanley) a small, inanimate tortoise.
Stewart is a would-be lothario whose idiocy and sexual incontinence lead him into trysts with all of the cast members. Barring Stanley.
The scene where he chummily decides to give Elvis a 'helping hand' is one of the comic high-lights of the play. It is beautifully judged by Blaney, who gives the scene just the right level of pragmatic bonhomie. Stewart, you feel, would flourish in a prison environment.
Stephen Beggs delivers an increasingly paranoid and apocalyptic King. At first content to describe his interest in burgers and capes, concerns about erectile dysfunction lead him into visions of 'sodomites rutting in the cornfields' and Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love.
His emergence from a fairy-lit cupboard, like a be-quiffed Mr Tumnus, next to the rutting bodies of his teenage daughter and the lodger, is another richly comic moment. The lovers provide cooing backing vocals between thrusts.
Jo Donnelly, as the booze-addled English teacher mother, gives a performance of astonishing range. She veers from a jelly-legged seduction of the hapless Stewart to a dark-night confessional, threading her fingers through the spokes of her husband’s wheelchair.
Nuala Magowan has perhaps the hardest role as Jill, the food-scientist and focus for the drama. She doesn’t have the funny lines that Mam gets or her father’s karate kicking set-pieces, yet she’s on stage almost constantly.
She is her own Greek-chorus, from the opening strains of 'Also Sprach Zarathustra' to the rousing last notes of “Amazing Grace”. Magowan is well up to the task, delivering a sure-footed and energetic performance.
Lisa May directs with a hand so firm she could have baked it in vinegar. The choreography is neatly done and the sets dismantled and rebuilt between scenes with astonishing efficiency. It’s like looking at the workings of a pocket-watch, but a pocket-watch that is singing doo-wop and shifting furniture.
The sets ingeniously fold and slide, producing doors from flock-patterned dividing walls and staircases from kitchen units. They have the beauty and simplicity of giant origami, a perfect illustration of Bruiser’s ethos: “minimal set for maximum impact”. Like Mam the machinery here is very well oiled.
If I had any misgivings they would lie with the play itself. It’s a bit slow to start, the resolution is fairly contrived and unconvincing and Stanley the tortoise’s story doesn’t really go anywhere. If you’re going to put a tortoise in a play you are going to need to make that tortoise work for you!
The self described 'glib epilogue' ends the performance with a truly rotten pun, but this is not so much acknowledged as celebrated. Mam and Jill scowl out into the audience, daring them not to laugh. And there’s still 'An American Trilogy' and appropriate pyrotechnics to come. To end on an awful pun of my own, this production was performed with some truly amazing grace.
Cooking With Elvis is touring throughout Northern Ireland during September and October. For more information, see Culture Northern Ireland's What's On listings.