Embrace your inner Presley: a Cooking With Elvis rehearsal

…no, lift it, remember your eyes are in your chin…

…then hips. HIPS! You know you’ve got it in you…

…now everyone grab Elvis! Get a handful of that chest. Feel that Elvis! Own that Elvis! And hold. Let the applause reach the top…

It started as an average overcast October afternoon. I left a hefty to-do list at work. The café burned my toastie.  And I lost yet another pen to the ink monster under the car seat. Yet, somehow, by 6pm I was smiling like a chimpanzee as choreographer Lee Proud worked his magic on four very talented actors.

I totally forgot my mundane autumn day and found myself willing Riley Jones (last seen being excellent as impressionable Andy in Wet House) to nail every…single…damn…step.

And when Tracy Whitwell (TV veteran, star of Live’s White Rabbit, Red Rabbit run and fine novelist) joined Victoria Bewick (a very able young stage and TV actress) and made finger flames, well, I was in Vegas.

Then Joe Caffrey (he of so many excellent performances) dominated the room with a surreal Presley-esque monologue. And at that point, in some kind of kung fu dancing epiphany, I met my inner Elvis.

Or perhaps I just re-discovered the boundary-pushing comedy of the anarchic, sexually charged, poignant play Cooking With Elvis. There it was loitering in a rehearsal room, preparing for a revival as part of Live Theatre’s 40th Anniversary programme.

You haven’t heard Live is bringing the play back? You’re kidding?

You didn’t know Joe was reprising his seminal role as a paraplegic Elvis impersonator? You saw the show in London with Frank Skinner – me too as it happens – and you didn’t realise it was another runaway Live Theatre export?

If that’s true, you need to get a hunk of burning love (crowbar reference, apologies) for this production. Actually, even if you got the references at line one you should see this play.

Since it premiered at Live in 1998, Cooking With Elvis has gathered followings all over the world. It was even the first play by a living English language writer to be staged in Cuba! Just this year it’s had three productions in the UK. Now it’s back where writer Lee Hall and director Max Roberts gave birth to it.

It’s Elvis’ homecoming and we get to witness it. Well, than’ you very much.

I know what you’re thinking. No. There’s no payment for writing this blog and you can trust that I sharpened my pen on a half-decade of film criticism. (I doubt The Wayans brothers will talk to me in this life, or the next). If something is not up to the mark, I’ll tell you.

If I’m honest I was a little nervous I might have to do that here.

I remember the first time I saw Cooking With Elvis. A handful of critics were calling it over-the-top, lurid. I didn’t agree. Descended from the taboo-smashing tradition of Joe Orton, it did what great plays do….invented a better way of telling a story and challenged audiences to think differently. It balanced farce, sex and high emotion, and employed some smart Brechtian devices.

If I had a suspicious mind (ok that was poor), sitting in a rehearsal might take the shine off my high expectations of this production. This is a good cast, and Max Roberts is directing a past triumph. But, what if seeing them going through most of the second act before it was polished left me feeling like a hound dog (oh dear, getting worse)?

Don’t worry. There’s no need to visit the heartbreak hotel (should I stop now?). The rehearsal was three hours of fascinating reassurance.

Victoria and Tracy exercised a wide range of emotional levels. There was a hysterical Joe and Riley moment in a dance routine. And watching Max guide these actors was insightful. Also, the interruption for Tracy’s wig fitting made me titter. And I had to suppress giggles during the debate about when a man should stop “fannying about”, and get down to the real business of cunnilingus.

Crucially, in glimpses of scenes I remember vividly from the last time round this cast were fresh. Even with work left to do before opening night, they touched my heart, made me laugh and roused my senses.

Riley said: “so you don’t need to see the show now then.” Yes, even more than before, I really do!

My rehearsal experience aside, there is another good reason to see this play.

Live Theatre has been telling relevant stories and challenging our ideas through drama for four decades. It’s fitting that for its 40th Anniversary Live produced Michael Chaplin’s Tyne and Paddy Campbell’s Wet House. They are both examples of new writing that give voice to the experience of ordinary people. They contrast in style and compliment in quality.

Now Live is giving us a chance to revisit a previous success in the same mould. Cooking With Elvis is yet another different style of drama. Judging by this rehearsal it’s going to have a ferocious level of entertainment, whilst continuing the social probing of the other two main house plays.

You might say the King’s back in town, and he’s here for 6 weeks. Well, bless my soul!

What’s wrong with me on this grey October day? I’m not itching like a man up a fuzzy tree.  I’m in love…with this rehearsal business.

Yeah, Cooking With Elvis has me all shook up. And I haven’t even seen it yet!

By Ben Dickenson
October’s Guest Blogger


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