There’s Something Special About Elvis

Cooking with Elvis Review

Well bless my soul what’s wrong with me, I’m feeling like a man who can’t see the wood for the trees.

I’ve been trying to write about Live Theatre’s excellent Cooking With Elvis revival for hours. I can’t find an angle that does it justice. I’m sad sack, frustrated by a mental block of stone. I feel like crying all over town. In front of this computer it is certainly lonesome tonight…

…nothing like it was a few hours ago.

Sat at a cabaret table in Live’s main house, knees pressed against the stage, it was an altogether more engaged sensation. I smelled adolescent anguish in the meals Jill (Victoria Bewick) cooked frantically, to cope with her father’s paraplegic status. I was a shuddering voyeur, as Mam (Tracy Whitwell) exposed the danger of drowning pain with wine and sex.

I laughed and disapproved at hapless opportunist Stuart (Riley Jones), and his increasingly inappropriate carnal encounters. And, naturally, I became a screaming Pressleyette grasping for Elvis’ ankles, as Dad (Joe Caffrey) dazzled with odd stories and mighty tunes.

Ah man, are there any tickets left for tomorrow night? I’m suffering post-show cold turkey.  That’s why this blog is hard to write. Theatre has worked its magic and, in its absence, I’m struggling.

Yes, that’s it. Or rather, that’s almost it.

I’ve seen a lot of theatre. I’ve enjoyed several good plays but boy have I seen my share of…what did that man in Edinburgh call it that year? Pish!  This Cooking With Elvis is definitely not one of those.

It’s the Vegas jump suit of theatre; bright and eye catching, shockingly tight and revealing. It’s sown at the seams with nudity, alcoholism, surrealism, anger and family dysfunction.

I first saw the play 14 years ago, in a London theatre. Joe Caffrey was in it. Frank Skinner played Stuart. I enjoyed it. Like so many at the time, I thought it was fresh and different. Taboo breaking in the tradition of Joe Orton.

This time round there was…something more…

Was it the Geordie crowd, boisterous and participatory as ever? They really were like! Joe had to start a magnificent Elvis monologue with the ad-lib: “ma’am it’s my part now”. The near-rowdy audience certainly added some electricity to the experience, but it wasn’t them.

Was it Joe, Riley, Tracy and Victoria? Tracy said it wasn’t her best night. Really? I’d pay a lot of money to see her, or any of the cast, do any better than they did tonight.  Tracy, you were compelling with emotions to tear through any fourth wall. Riley was equally entertaining, with a nuanced depth of characterisation.  Joe owned the space as Elvis, captivatingly surreal and somehow sympathetic.

And Victoria, youngest in the cast, carried the show convincingly through high and low notes.

I tend to agree with Alex Tahnee of The Letter Room, the company kick started recently by Northern Stage, who Tweeted: “so honest, just brilliant”. It was. They were. But, as keen as I am to praise the performers, that’s still not the something I’m trying to articulate.

Is it because I’m loyal? At the rehearsal I went to a few weeks ago (I refer the reader to my previous blog) I was converted to director Max Robert’s vision. His ability to tease quality from the actors, and his understanding of the show was inspiring. And as a Live Writers Group graduate I support the theatre. But so do lots of people. That’s not so special.

Is it Gary McCann’s set, with its brilliantly dated wallpaper and multiple hanging lights? Is it the dance moves, which did choreographer Lee Proud…err…proud?

No, it’s none of these. Place, audience, staging, talent – there is something else. Defining what makes this Cooking With Elvis production special, is the reason I’ve been hound dogging this review all night.

…review! Got it!

Just before I went to see the play I read a review that said Cooking With Elvis had “no deep message”. I didn’t realise till now how much this annoyed me.

Lee Hall is too good a writer, Live Theatre too steeped in a legacy of socially relevant drama, to produce something simply puerile. Cooking With Elvis is shockingly fun. It is riddled with sex gags you won’t easily forget. (Hot steaming dumplings and salty gravy anyone?) But it also takes accepted conventions and throws them in the air.

Messing with theatrical norms, yes, there’s an element of that.  Max’s direction accentuates Lee Hall’s nod to Bertolt Brecht. Jill’s scene titles and direct address stand out more than I recall from the last time round. However, this play is Brechtian in a purer sense.

Making theatre in a time of political upheaval, Brecht wanted audiences to learn about society through the experience of play watching. Contrary to much that is written about him, he didn’t seek to remove emotion or comedy from drama. He didn’t want to lecture people.  He believed in raising questions by showing the inner workings of social situations. Showing, not telling.

Live’s revival of Cooking With Elvis is the descendant of that tradition.

Dinner table scenes show the familial home, so idealised in Hollywood film, as the straight jacket it can sometimes be. Hand-over-mouth gags illustrate our culture’s failure to prepare us for love and tragedy alike. There are questions about the role of women in society, how relationships work and how we hold on to humanity in adversity.

Get it straight; this is not a Carry On film.

Now that’s the something special I’ve been searching for!

This Cooking With Elvis production has talent in every corner. It’ll be enjoyed by many people, and rightly celebrated as Live Theatre’s return to a former triumph. I hope the takings swell Live’s coffers so they can be applauded many more times, for raising questions about the world we live in.

And if Max Roberts and his team keep finding writers who make us laugh whilst we think, I’ll certainly be back for more.

Don’t miss the Cooking with Elvis Post Show Discussion this Wednesday at 9.45pm. This free event will give fans the chance to hear the panel talk about this provocative and hilarious play. Find out more about Max Roberts’ views on directing the play again, some 15 years later, and how cast member Joe Caffrey feels about reprising his role as the paralysed Elvis impersonator and donning the sparkly jump suits again! There will also be the chance to hear more about the current production’s journey from page to stage and an opportunity for audience members to put their questions to the team.

By Ben Dickenson
Guest Blogger


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