Cooking With Elvis: Before there were gross-outs …

Lee Hall’s Cooking With Elvis is tasteless, crude, and has all the ingredients you’d expect of a gross-out movie. And, strangely enough, I like it.

Stuart dressed as Elvis. Jill and Mam sitting on the bed. Long story, don't ask.

Live Theatre’s record of new writing is a hit-and-miss one. That is something that very much comes with the territory of new writing – to do something successful, you have to take risks, and inevitably there are times when it doesn’t work out. That is why I have generally been forgiving of Live when they produced the occasional dud. But sooner or later, you have to produce something to show it’s been worth it, and this year, Exhibit A from Live Theatre is a revival of Lee Hall’s 1998 play Cooking With Elvis. This time, there is no room for excuses: Lee Hall is as established a writer as you can get, they’ve had an original run to see what works and what doesn’t, and this production should be considered an example of the best Live can do. So, don’t think you’re under any pressure or anything. How does it do?

Well, I’ll start with one of my favourite moments, halfway through Act One. Stuart (Riley Jones) comes round to the house of Jill (Victoria Berwick) and her Mam (Tracy Whitwell). Jill politely tells Stuart that she hopes his last visit wasn’t too much trouble, and Stuart politely replies that it was nothing unusual. Which is probably the biggest understatement in the history of theatre, because the last time he was in the house was when he’s been brought back by Jill’s horny alcohic Mam ( Tracy Whitwell), been made to strip off, only to be interrupted by Jill wheeling in her vegetative Ex-Elvis Impersonator Dad (Joe Caffrey) who proceeds to piss on Stuart. In spite of this, Mam still brings in Stuart as her live-in toy boy. Jill, it appears does nothing but cook fancy meals, and suffers endless taunts from her mother for not doing proper stuff teenage girls to, like getting a boyfriend. Until we reach Act One Scene Thirteen. This is announced by Jill as the “end of Act One twist”, and you can probably guess what that twist involves.

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Excuse the brief post, but it’s past midnight and I’m too busy to keep up with reviews right now. However, here is a quick newsflash to say that I have now been through installations 1 to 16 tonight (in numerical order like the obsessive compulsive I am) and I’m minded to say this is the best line-up they have done since they started in 2009.

So if you haven’t been yet, I cannot recommend this highly enough. You have until Sunday. The crowd control measures seem to be working so far, so there’s little chance of a repeat of last year’s crush if that worry has been keeping you away. I’ll write a bigger article in due course picking out highlights, but in the meantime I’d day the thing you absolutely must catch is [M]ondes in Durham Cathedral. Remember, you need a ticket to get into the city centre (including the Cathedral) before 7.30, but it is unticketed afterwards. And it looks like the weather’s going to be kind. So come and see it, and you’ll be thankful you did.

UPDATE: (Sat morning): Perhaps I spoke a little too soon about the crowds. A lot more people on Friday night, and at 9 p.m. people were queuing for 20 minutes to get into the city centre. Tonight’s going to be the tough one. We’ll see.

Why devised theatre is hard

Three women applying lipsitck in mirror
Skolka (later retitled Ulov), a play about Russian mail-order brides, was an outstanding piece of devised theatre. Sadly, this is the very much the exception.

One thing I kept bemoaning in my roundups of this year’s Brighton. Buxton and Edinburgh Fringes was the number of poor and mediocre pieces of devised theatre. This is a blog for things that are good, so I won’t name and shame examples, but the same mistakes keep being made. The definition of devised theatre is a bit vague, but what I mean by devised theatre is a production where there is no writer and usually no director. Instead, the play is jointly put together by a collaboration of the actors.

There are two things I can say are good about the devised theatre I’ve seen at Fringes. The first thing that has consistently impressed me  is just how slick and how well choreographed these things are, from the fully professional right down to the student productions. With so many theatres terrified of anything in the slightest bit unconventional, it just goes to show what you can achieve when you are adventurous with movement. And the other thing that impresses me is the great ideas that these plays have as their subject matter. But sadly, these great ideas almost always fail to live up to their potential. In the majority of cases, there is little or nothing about the devised play I found memorable. Now, I am perhaps one of the harsher judges of devised theatre – other reviewers are more accommodating than me, possibly giving the benefit of the doubt of a work in progress. But I don’t make allowances for that and I expect devised theatre to be as good as conventional productions with a script and a director.

So why do I keep going to devised theatre if I’m so cynical about it? Is it because I didn’t know it was devised theatre when I bought the ticket? Do I only realise when I’m in the theatre and it’s too late? Strangely enough, no. The real reason I keep giving devised theatre chance after chance is that, on the rare occasion when devised theatre turns out well, it is outstanding. Even some of the most famous plays were the product of devised theatre once. Abigail’s Party is one of the most famous examples. That was once a project where Mike Leigh gave five actors different characters, threw them into a situation and waited to see what became of it – and the rest is history. Continue reading

What to expect at Lumiere

Crown of Light projected on to Durham Cathedral

Now that I’ve finished my backlog of reviews, I can turn my attention to the big upcoming arts event in Durham: Lumiere. Coming up next week on the 14th-17th November, it’s a biennial event that has grown from an interesting newcomer four years ago to the dominant event of the whole year. Who would have thought this back in 2008?

You’ll have to wait another week and a bit before you get to see any of these installations in action, but the programme is already out. There’s no need to read it in advance to plan your visit – you can just turn up and enjoy it. But I have taken a look and what’s coming, and I have three observations. Continue reading