Writer: Dan Le Franc
Director: Michael Boyd
Reviewer: Glen Pearce
Forget Cameron’s Big Society, Dan Le Franc’s The Big Meal gives us the true reflection of our modern lives. It may be set in America but this compelling 90 minute journey across 80 years of family history is universal in its appeal.
As the traditional nuclear family expands both in size and geographical spread, clan gatherings now frequently take place in the more expansive spaces of restaurants. Birthdays, anniversaries, and engagement milestones all celebrated against a backdrop of enchiladas and corn dogs.
It’s in one of these ubiquitous chains that LeFranc sets his piece, starting with a chance encounter between waitress and customers. At the pluck of a piano string we jump forward – their first date, their break up, their reconciliation, their kids…
The surroundings never change but like some time-lapse photography we see the family expand and contract, grow closer and then get torn apart as tensions rise and fall. The young lovers become parents and grandparents, the rebellious children face rebellious kids of their own – each never quite learning from the previous generation’s mistakes.
LeFranc’s script abandons conventional dramatic convention. He plays his cards fast, his text ricocheting with the machine gun overlap of real speech patterns so we have to work hard to work out what is being said. Though we don’t always catch every word it doesn’t matter, it’s so perfectly pitched that focus is always drawn to the killer punch.
Michael Boyd’s production is a masterpiece in timing and direction, Boyd marshalling his troops in a perfectly choreographed union of delivery and character. The ever expanding family tree, delivered by the cast playing multiple rôles as the generational baton is handed on, could so easily be confusing to watch, but Boyd paints the picture with such clarity that not only is it easy to follow the shifting stage but it all seem thoroughly logical.
The ensemble company manage the transitions seamlessly. James Corrigan, Jo Stone-Fewings and Keith Bartlett playing the three generations of Sam (alongside numerous other relations en-route) while Lindsey Campbell, Kirsty Bushell and Diana Quick offer us, again among other rôles, the matriarchal incarnations of Nicole.
There’s more here though than family squabbling, there’s also a look at the pain that can either unite or divide a family. Be it the death of a grandparent or mother, the pain of a miscarriage or the death of a young serviceman – each is movingly and unflinchingly portrayed onstage.
As audience we are drawn in as conspirators to these final meals, all too aware that the arrival of the waitress with another plate of blood red food symbolises the approaching demise of another character. As in life, some face imminent death with bravado (Corrigan’s defiant soldier Sammy’s feral devouring of his final meal) while others submit with a knowing dignity (Bartlett’s ageing Sam slowly consuming his pureed baby food).
As the lights slowly fade on a lonely, inconsolable Diana Quick we’re aware that we’ve journeyed far in these brief 90 minutes, a journey that has taken us not only to the centre of this particular American family but also into our own. The Big Meal is a sumptuous feast that will feed the mind and memory long after the lights fade.
Runs until 19 April