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.
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.
Coincidentally, this sort of stuff started proliferating in 1998 with films such as There’s Something About Mary and the endless barrage of gross-out movies there’s been ever since. Had Lee Hall taken Cooking With Elvis the same way, we would treated to a rib-cracking evening of hilarious jokes about farting and spunk. And indeed, some critics have decried the original as purile and populist, but no, that is only a very superficial front. Underneath are some tragic stories of all four characters. Dad’s problem is obvious. Jill’s cooking is part of an attempt to bring her Dad round – she probably knows it’s futile, but it’s an escape from a mother who constantly belittles her without a father standing up for her. Stuart has a dead-end job in the cake factory and serious self-esteem problems to boot – he could probably do a lot better for himself than a live-in toy boy, but doesn’t. Stuarts attempts to please everyone and offend no-one is one of the funnniest bits of the play.
But my favourite character was Mam. She’s not the only sex-obsessed drink-addled mother from hell to feature in recent Live production: Lee Mattinson had a similar character in Chalet Lines last year, Loretta. Maybe Cooking With Elvis was part of the inspiration, maybe it wasn’t. But there is one thing in particular Lee Hall does better. Whilst Loretta is practically irredeemable in every way, in Cooking With Elvis Lee Hall portrays Mam in a more sympathetic fashion. For all her obnoxiousness, her drink habit and her sex craze with younger men is all part of her own refuge from the realities of life. Her marriage was an unhappy one, and deep down she never forgave herself for wishing the accident on her husband the day it happened. In one particularly drunken scene, she pours her heart out to her comatose husband, bemoaning the way she’s on the scrap-heap at 42. And the fact that we live in a society where women in their early forties are so easily made to feel on the scrap-heap is a very sad statement of society.
There is only one thing about this play that bothered me, which was the very last scene. I have neither the time nor the stomach to explain the events leading up to the last scene, but for those who saw it, I felt the final scene sold the characters shorts for the sake of one gag – a gag that, incidentally, I saw coming a mile off. With Lee Hall having put so much effort into keeping the characters believable in the most ridiculous and unsavoury situations, it was a bit of a disappointment that he allowed an ending that was simply not plausible behaviour of either Jill or Mam. Having done so well up to this point, that ending was a pity.
But going back to the original question of whether this play, as an example of the best Live can offer, justifies its status as a new writing theatre, I’d say it’s done enough to do the job. It was undoubtedly successful in terms of box office sales and audience reaction. That in itself doesn’t prove much, because there are plenty of crowd-pleasing plays out there without a shred of originality, but Cooking with Elvis is far from a crowd-pleaser. It was quite a gamble to treat such sensitive subjects as a comedy, because all sorts of things could have gone wrong: it could be been buried in moral outrage, the jokes could have fallen flat, or – worst of all – Lee Hall could have ended up with a play little different from the tasteless gross-outs that pass off for comedy these days. Live Theatre often takes risks that don’t work out; Cooking with Elvis should be looked on as an example of a risk that works.