DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

The Cold Buffet – Live Theatre, Newcastle

Reviewer: Jon Deery

Writer: Elijah Young

Director: Jack McNamara

It’s a time-honoured tradition: in any story about a divided family, mealtimes are minefields. When everyone gets together around the table, seemingly in good spirits, we know that sooner or later someone’s gonna step in it, and blow the whole thing up. Elijah Young’s innovation on this trope isThe Cold Buffet – a play that spirals around a table of barely-touched nibbles, in the room just outside the party.

The three-act story takes place across three major family moments: a wake, a wedding, and a christening, all from the perspective of the back-room buffet table. What sets a buffet apart from other means of serving food is that a buffet allows people to come and go as they please. It’s an appropriate centrepiece for a play about a family who does exactly that: the McCarthy family is plagued by periods of prolonged silence between father and son, between sisters, between grandparents and their grandkids. Like all real buffets, most of the food goes uneaten; and like many real families, most of the important grievances in the McCarthy family go entirely unspoken.

While this is certainly an ensemble piece, the ‘meat’ of the story lies in the dynamic between Ellis (Nick Blakely) and his father David (Jim Kitson). These two men have so much to say to each other, and none of the vulnerability needed to say it; Blakely portrays Ellis phenomenally, as a sardonic gay man who copes with his toxic family by maintaining a cold, dry emotional distance. The power of Blakely’s performance is in its ability to convey the deep yearning underneath the sarcastic exterior, so that when the outbursts eventually arise, they hit with astonishing power.

Kitson is convincing as an emotionally-repressed middle-aged man. Again, the emotion bubbling below the surface is tangible, as he navigates a fraught relationship with his mother Evelyn (Jane Holman), his son, and his soon-to-be wife Ayeesha (Amara Karan). His ‘speeches’ are those familiar mumbling half-sentences, prompted by a shakily-held piece of paper with some scribbled notes, that many of us will recognise from nervous dads at family gatherings. David is a man who only gets emotional when he’s drunk or angry, but there is a clear tenderness and love that shines through it all, a real care for his family.

This play jumps from comedy to tragedy, often straddling the two simultaneously; while in some moments this is jarring, most of the play derives considerable energy from the unpredictable flickering of tone. If the play purely featured the emotionally-repressed McCarthys, it would veer into soap opera territory. But the addition of Ayeesha, a character hilariously incapable of emotional repression, breathes life, and joy, and abundant kinetic energy into this play. Ayeesha is, to be sure, a fairly one-dimensional character. There isn’t much room for subtext, because absolutely every emotion is granted full expression by Karan’s energetic performance. She says ‘hi’ at least three times in each greeting, shrieks for people to get up and dance, and over-delivers every line of dialogue. Again, the effect is jarring at first, but as the family situation slips further and further into dark territory, Ayeesha’s strained smiles become increasingly comic, until she steals every scene she enters. Her speech, in stark contrast to David’s mumbles, is loud and loquacious. It is easy to see what David sees in her; even if, by the end of the play, the question of what exactlyshesees inhimremains glaringly unanswered.

Jack McNamara pulls all these disparate characters together in often touching ways; the awkward solidarity between Ellis and his younger cousin Max (Beth Fletcher Morris) is particularly poignant. The two lie beside one another on the carpet, discussing their issues with the family, their experiences of discrimination for their queer identities. Ellis can’t sit still, and rushes around the buffet, gesticulating, picking at nibbles, uncomfortable in his environment. Max, the ‘peacekeeper’, spends long periods of the play sitting down or standing still, entirely willing to remain a part of the family, even if they’ve not had perfect treatment themselves.

All in all, the food might be cold, thepeoplemight be cold, but this play is fresh, warm and full of substance. A much-needed examination of how men can model a vulnerable, caring masculinity, against all the odds, and a drama that feels both deeply Northern and wholly universal, this play is a theatrical feast, fit for the celebration of Live Theatre’s 50th anniversary.

Runs until 28th October 2023

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Jacob Bush. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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