The delightfully intimate Jack Studio Theatre reopens in front of a socially-distanced audience with this charming two-hander by Stewart Pringle. Last seen live-streamed from the Maltings Theatre, the production is directed by Matthew Parker. Jilly Bond reprises her role as Denise, the sinewy Zumba teacher, who meets weekly with retired widower Harry played by Timothy Harker.
Our scene is one end of the Billingham Temperance Hall with its stark entrance, a stack of black plastic chairs and the ubiquitous trestle table at centre stage. There is just enough clutter in and on top of a cupboard to represent the paraphernalia that such community spaces attract and an appropriate selection of posters (almost certainly out-of-date) on the community noticeboard.
Numerous mini-scenes flash by, one week apart. Harry’s committee meeting finishes before Denise’s Zumba class starts and in the few minutes’ hiatus, beginning with a misunderstanding, we see their friendship – if not a relationship – develop and blossom. There is small talk and the sharing of sandwiches, and little by little personal information leaks out. But can we believe these short meetings can develop into romance? Denise talks of the steamy scenes she is reading but she does not follow such talk into action. Harry is too content with his mundane unchanging routine to risk the turmoil of change.
Harker excels as the fastidious Harry, with his shuffling of papers and bumbling manner, in a tweed jacket and sleeveless woollen sweater, and a flat cap to remind us of his Yorkshire-ness. When appointed Chairman to his board he buys his own gavel on eBay but sheepishly admits he has never had to use it in a meeting. But he mimes with it when no-one is looking.
Denise is brash, and confident enough to run both an exercise class and a book club, but she is unable to confront a man who makes comments on her eating a banana in the library.
The well-rehearsed movement between the couple in the confined space is slick and easy. Entrances and exits through the one small door are timed perfectly. Only when the couple attempt to sit on the table does the fluency stutter; Harker (or Harry) can’t hide his doubts that the trestle is sufficiently stable.
There is no full blackout between scenes so that we can see the reset for the next meeting. Tedium from the repetitive actions of stacking and restacking the chairs and the repositioning of the trestle table is narrowly avoided. Only the continuous opening and closing of Harry’s briefcase becomes a bugbear. And it jars when the trestle is incongruously left standing in some later scenes as the premise of the play is surely that the table has to be moved for Denise’s Zumba class.
Both Bond and Harker play the comedy gently and convincingly. It is light and comfortable viewing – the potential source for a Sunday evening TV sit-com – but the personal stories lack depth and, whilst we learn that even older people can get muddled in their efforts to forge relationships, the journey our couple make is not long enough.
“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.