Reviewed by Helen and Garry McWilliams
This is a play that we weren’t initially familiar with and as the first Derby Theatre Production, we were intrigued to know more about their choice. Not at all deterred by the ‘promise’ of strong adult content and sexual references, we took our seats in the auditorium and were instantly impressed with the set. In fact we likened it to that of ‘The Woman Who Cooked Her Husband’ at the New Ambassadors Theatre, London back in 2002 which starred Alison Steadman. What we didn’t realise at this point was the vague similarity that would materialise between the two plays. The stunning set remained static throughout, that of the contemporaryily decorated house belonging to Mam, Jill and Dad (aka Elvis!) with a nod towards the relevance of the kitchen and copious amounts of alcohol.
The story revolves around ‘Elvis’ and ‘cooking’ as the title suggests, but the undertones run much deeper and it is easy to over-analyse every nuance. Jill is a fourteen year old girl who harbours a food obsession and a firm belief that her Dad will recover from the effects of a serious road accident. The accident has left him with severe paraplegia and he remains in a vegetative state. Mam is exploitive of her own ‘needs’ even though her husband is still alive and living under the same roof, which is where Stuart comes in. Starting out as a ‘love-interest’ for Mam, he soon becomes a focal point and provides (as Jill states when announcing the final scene of act one) ‘a surprise twist’. ‘Cooking with Elvis’ differs from anything we have seen before, it’s a fresh and innovative script by Lee Hall which has been directed in a highly observational way by Mark Babych.
Laura Elsworthy plays the culinary expert, Jill, we are sure that Elsworthy must be older than fourteen – but she plays the young teenager with gawkiness and indeed a ‘Wednesday Addams’ quality at times. A very talented young actress who was perfectly cast in the pivotal role. Polly Lister is bawdy and outlandish as Mam, the unlikely English teacher who is still grieving for her husband (even when he is in the same room). Lister particularly shone when portraying the ‘real’ Mam, showing vulnerability to the brink of earning pity from the audience. Adam Barlow plays the baffled yet conniving Stuart and gives a brave performance, especially given the complexity of the character.
The most outstanding of the cast of four was Jack Lord as Dad, not only having to convincingly portray a physically and mentally disabled man, but also play Dad’s alter-ego ‘Elvis’. For, as the story unfolds we learn that Dad was an ‘Elvis’ tribute artist and Jill has kept hold of the costumes – they’re in her wardrobe (among other things). Lord could sing like ‘the King’, move like ‘the King’ and even talks like him, which was incredible to watch, we could literally hear a pin drop during the witty yet poignant monologues. At times it seemed that the appearance of ‘Elvis’ was a memory for Mam and Jill and at other times we believed that this was a ‘figment’ of Dad’s imagination.
‘Cooking with Elvis’ is a sexually explosive, deliciously raunchy and dark tale which may not suit all tastes but pushes the boundaries and it’s refreshingly different. However, essentially it’s an everyday story of a dysfunctional family endeavouring to cope with whatever life throws at them. Astounding twists keep the energy of the piece to a high pace which captured and held our attention. It stays at the Derby Theatre until 18th May so visit http://www.derbytheatre.co.uk/performance/cooking-elvis to book your tickets.