Writer: Dan LeFranc
Director: Michael Boyd
Reviewer: Claire Hayes
Make sure you inhale deeply before you watch The Big Meal. It begins with a meeting in a restaurant and, from that first, heady encounter at a table for two, there’s little chance to catch your breath.
Sam and Nicole tell each other they aren’t looking for commitment but, as their relationship fast-forwards, their table is joined by a cacophony of parents and children. All at once, the whole ensemble is arguing over laminated menus and talking across each other; funny, brash and seemingly unstoppable.
In ninety minutes, through the public communion of shared meals, this play crosses the generations of an American family’s life. From the dizzy ecstasy of falling in love, it rushes headlong into the responsibility of parenthood; from nurturing young children to seeing how they grow away from you as teenagers towards a life of their own. Along the way there’s the mixing of drinks, the question of whether calamari counts as shellfish and the repetition of a suspiciously racist Mexican joke to contend with.
The dialogue is pin-sharp. “Love is not California”, we’re told. There’s hail and snow and slush and the temperature doesn’t stay the same all year round. And so, just as you’re getting used to the laughter, there’s a silence in the storm. A plate of lurid food, the scraping of cutlery and an empty space left behind.
This UK premiere of Dan LeFranc’s acclaimed play, first performed in Chicago in 2011, is a co-production with Theatre Royal Bath and HighTide Festival Theatre. It’s also the first to be directed by Michael Boyd since his rôle as Artistic Director of the RSC. The superbly rôle-swapping cast of eight acts with great energy and fluidity and includes a welcome return to the Ustinov for Diana Quick, first as Nicole’s mother-in-law and later as the older Nicole herself. Jo Stone-Fewings is notable as the middle-aged Sam and then his own son Robbie, and there’s remarkable versatility from the children, at this performance played by Zoe Dolly Castle and Jeremy Becker. Only the waitress remains an unnamed wraith throughout, clearing away drinks and slamming down plates.
Tom Piper’s red-walled set, dotted with glasses, represents any and every American restaurant and is a wonderful contrast to the muted black-and-greys of his costumes. A change of hairstyle, or the switching of a jacket or necklace, hands on identity between generations. It raises interesting questions about the interchangeable nature of all our rôles, as we shuffle through Shakespeare’s seven ages of man.
The Big Meal is an onslaught, in turn hilarious, uncomfortable and heart-breaking. You’re either overwhelmed by clamour or gasping at the power of silence, with very little in between. Generational stereotypes are at the heart of what we’re watching, yet getting to know the later characters a little better would add a depth to their losses. Occasionally, it would be good to rest a while longer but, in the end, this doesn’t detract from the exhilaration of this production. It’s a remarkable achievement by this talented company and an intense and stunning debut for the Ustinov’s 2014 American Season.
Runs until 5th April 2014.