“fretfully provocative and painfully relevant, and it gives us a whole lot to think about”
Though it might be said of many a time in history, the debate on power distribution seems particularly prevalent at this political moment, and the argument between generations seems louder than ever, with terms such as ‘generation snowflake’ being bandied about. Eleanor Burgess’ The Niceties, as directed by Matthew Illife, is a timely discussion between young and old, majority and minority, and radical and moderate.
Zoe (Moronkę Akinola), a young black student, and her professor Janine (Janie Dee), a white woman of obvious privilege, are poring over a first draft of Zoe’s thesis. What begins as an interesting discussion between two enthusiasts morphs into a gritty debate on the innately imperialist structure of academia and history’s stress on the white experience. The argument becomes personal very quickly, as is made clear to us by a soundtrack (Kate Marlais) of a low thrum and a heartbeat, confirming that things have turned nasty. This is pretty much the only sound used throughout, appearing again halfway through the second act, and it seems a bit unnecessary and patronising.
That being said, tension rises so early in the play that it’s perhaps necessary to continuously raise the bar. Whilst Zoe clearly has cause to be frustrated with the system, Akinola plays her more like a petulant child for the first half. Stomping around her professor’s office, avoiding eye contact, it feels more like a fight between a mother and her teenage daughter than between an esteemed academic and a promising student. The argument’s peak is lost in her almost constant state of fury where it might have had more punch if she had deferred her outrage slightly.
Akinola is quite a force on stage, however, and whilst her character choices don’t necessarily serve the play, her commitment to the role is tremendous.
Dee’s American accent is a little shaky and it gets in the way of her delivery for the first twenty minutes or so, but regardless, it feels as though she might have ad-libbed half the play, so natural are her mannerisms and emotional turns.
With an audience on three sides and an office-desk setting (Rachel Stone), the staging is always going to be tricky. The solution, it seems, is to keep both performers moving at all times, circling each other like cage fighters, in order to avoid having someone’s back to the audience throughout. It feels unlikely in this particular scenario, but maybe that’s how professors’ office hours are in the US?
No matter how it’s staged, the text itself will always, I think, make for uncomfortable viewing, pitting idealism against pragmatism; negotiating for improvements versus demanding immediate change. It’s an interesting discussion, but I’m not convinced these were the characters to have it: Though she isn’t without nuance, Zoe seems a slightly unfair and unkind representation of a completely sound point of view where Janine, though certainly flawed, comes off as charming and reasonable. It’s not a fair fight.
There’s no doubt The Niceties brings certain necessary and urgent conversations to the table, and whilst it doesn’t quite strike an even tone, it is fretfully provocative and painfully relevant, and it gives us a whole lot to think about.
“a smorgasbord brimming with light and shade, tension and reflection, and poetic language and cheesy jokes, leaving you fully satisfied by its end”
‘We cater for everything’, Nora explains, as she waxes lyrical on the beauty of gastronomy to the audience, framed as passengers on a long-haul flight. The speech is delivered through headphones that we each wear, accompanied by pulsing, transcendent music, while the lights flicker in a hypnotic canon. All the while, we’re consuming the most thematically prescient and tongue-igniting Yorkshire puddings perhaps to have ever graced the stage. I think it’s safe to say that Nora isn’t wrong.
Gastronomic centres on three chefs – Nora (Georgina Strawson), Luca (Craig Hamilton), and Agat (Ani Nelson) – catering for a first-class long-haul flight from Mumbai to Heathrow. The audience, as the passengers, subsequently get to enjoy the seven courses they produce, while their interactions reveal that their intentions may not be as clear-cut as they seem; flashbacks slowly reveal a story that’s truly about the necessity of connection and empathy between humans, and the ways in which we express it. The poignancy of this main plot is excellently counterbalanced in a parallel narrative where the actors instead play Border Control personnel, sharing banter and interacting with the audience, while also carrying an undercurrent of unsteadiness that erupts in its culmination. The devised script from curious directive (conceived by Jack Lowe) is a smorgasbord brimming with light and shade, tension and reflection, and poetic language and cheesy jokes, leaving you fully satisfied by its end.
However, Gastronomic’s script is only one of its myriad of facets. The food (prepared chiefly by head chef Clyde Ngounou and sous-chef Daniel Spirlinng) isn’t just there as a cheap gimmick – each course ties directly into the story, created as a result of the characters’ experiences and histories. At one point, Nora reminisces about what made her drop an ice cream on Brighton pier, while we devour End of Brighton Pier – what appears to be an ice cream cone but is actually deconstructed fish and chips – allowing us to essentially taste the memory. The ways in which the food manifests the psychology of the characters as well as the script’s linguistic imagery is truly staggering, and makes for a sensory experience like no other. Thankfully, every single course is also delicious, a particular highlight being the supernova of autumnal flavours that Sherwood Forest delivered.
The multi-sensory nature of the show doesn’t stop there, though. Due to the headphones being worn by the audience, it allows the sound mix (designed by Kieran Lucas) to be incredibly cinematic. The actors are free to speak as intimately as they wish, giving a surrendering sensitivity to some of the more heart-wrenching moments, while also being able to take it to the other extreme and embrace the theatricality of other scenes, which is a balance that Hamilton especially was able to utilise spectacularly with his two hugely contrasting characters. When the next course is on its way, the speech is aviated by Theo Whitworth’s soul-searing compositions and flouresced by Ed Elbourne’s liminal lighting. Jack Lowe’s design and direction of the show has ensured that everything truly has been catered for; Gastronomic is a massage for every sense. The food isn’t just for the stomach, but for the mind and soul.