Cooking with Elvis

Bruiser Theatre Company presents 'Cooking with Elvis' by Lee Hall.

Bruiser Theatre Company presents 'Cooking with Elvis' by Lee Hall.

The trouble with a well-crafted preview or rehearsed reading is that it runs the risk of eliminating or diluting that exquisite first gasp of disbelief when an unexpected plot twist or turn of events subsequently occurs in full production. Bruiser took the opportunity offered by the Pick’n’Mix Festival of new work in April to try out extracts from its forthcoming production. It worked a treat. Nothing could have prepared the audience for the shock-horror moment when Bruiser’s company manager Stephen Beggs erupted out of a wheelchair and morphed from a mute, vacant, moon-faced quadriplegic into the pouting, gyrating, satin-encased King of Rock’n’Roll.

Beggs is a genial, ubiquitous figure in Northern Irish theatre, perennially encouraging and supportive of his peers - so much so, that it is easy to ignore the fact that he is also an accomplished actor and singer in his own right. His unforgettable portrayal six months ago of car crash victim Davey – previously a chartered surveyor, contented family man and ace Elvis impersonator – has deservedly resulted in his retaining his place in the cast of this no-holds-barred revival of Lee Hall’s dark, dirty, surreal comedy, which still springs plenty of queasy surprises.

'Cooking with Elvis' by Lee Hall.Returning with him are the excellent Jo Donnelly as his depressed, sexually frustrated wife and Nuala Magowan as their plain, knowing, food-obsessed daughter. This unlikely ménage à quatre is completed by the bouncy presence of Shaun Blaney as bakery supervisor Stuart, whose sheltered existence at home with his elderly mother has ill prepared him for the sticky fates that lie in wait. And then there’s Stanley, the family tortoise, doomed to meet a horrible end of Greek tragic proportions.

Hall’s grotesque, heart-breaking portrait of a family tragedy is channelled through an explosive mixture of non-PC subjects – physical disability, sexual exploitation, paedophilia, alcohol abuse, erectile dysfunction, obesity, masturbation – all of which, through Lisa May’s in-your-face treatment, have a substantial number of audience members writhing, giggling and exchanging looks of dazed disbelief. Those who go along hoping for a wallow in Elvis-induced memories will be more than satisfied with the great old numbers belted out with pzazz by Beggs, but this is definitely and deliciously not for those who prefer their entertainment served up delicately and in polite company.

The play first emerged as a hit at the 1999 Edinburgh Festival Fringe and is a slightly unusual choice for Bruiser, which has forged its reputation on highly stylised, intensely physical interpretations of classic texts, usually involving a small cast playing a vast gallery of characters. There may be no need for a doubling-up of roles here, but there is no mistaking the company’s trademark exuberance and presentation style, as the four actors gambol and skitter through the scene changes, cranking up the hysteria levels, while warbling away in close harmony.

'Cooking with Elvis' by Lee Hall.The storyline initially registers as standard domestic drama fare. Since her husband’s accident, schoolteacher Mam has acquired a penchant for fit younger guys and loads of booze. Daughter Jill devotes herself to looking after her father, cooking complicated, unhealthy meals and voicing loud disapproval of her mother. And although Davey may now be locked in a silent, sedentary world, in his head and to the delight of his daughter, he’s still The Pelvis. Their thankless daily routine is thrown into total confusion, however, when Mam moves in Stuart, her latest conquest, a hapless young chap who finds himself commuting between two forbidden beds, lending Davey a helping hand with his little erectile difficulty and consuming the very worst that Jill’s cooking has to offer.

May opts to play the whole thing for laughs and does not permit the pace to lapse for a single second. It is not until the final moments that the seriousness of Hall’s comic intent seeps through. Beneath the high-camp cabaret turns and grisly conduct lurks a sly observation. Beggs slithers on as The King in his pomp, stops the music, dims the lights and focuses our attention onto the star’s distasteful secret life. And there is revealed the central truth, that while the bizarre, inappropriate and illegal behaviour of celebrities is glossed over as merely colourful and titillating, similar incidents provoke widespread revulsion when they occur behind the lace curtains of middle-class suburbia.

Jane Coyle is a Belfast based arts journalist, performing arts critic and screenwriter, who also reviews for The Irish Times and The Stage.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Cooking with Elvis by Lee Hall

22 Sept - 22 Oct, 2011 (on tour)

Produced by Bruiser Theatre Company
In Waterfront Studio, Belfast

Directed by Lisa May

Musical Director: Mark Dougherty

With: Stephen Beggs, Shaun Blaney, Jo Donnelly, Nuala Magowan