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Biscuits for Breakfast in Hampstead Downstairs

Slow burner. Or, put another way, slow cooker, even. Takes a while to get up to speed, to get up to maximum heat, to get to the meat of the piece but when it gets there, boy, do we know about it, do we feel it and do we get seared and stirred with our nerves being thoroughly grated and shredded. Yes, this is a very powerful play served up by writer Gareth Farr – a powerful play powerfully performed.

Boadicea Ricketts in Biscuits for Breakfast. Credit Alessandro Castellani.
Boadicea Ricketts in Biscuits for Breakfast. Credit Alessandro Castellani.

We dance around the houses a bit at first – and around the hotels and clubs in a small seaside town. There are a couple of relationships to grasp, first between aspiring chef Paul and his Dad: his dead Dad, that is. Yes, we never see Dad but we hear him. In a largely prop-less show, the one omnipresent prop is an old cassette machine with tapes of Paul at age eleven and Dad bonding over a hot stove in a galley. Dad is not long for this world and this time with his son is precious. His mission is to convince Paul of the “teach a man to fish” doctrine – i.e. learn to catch/sell/cook food because “people always need to eat”. Sceptical young Paul grows into cooking aficionado older Paul. The voices of Dad and young Paul are via Giles King and Rufus Bennett Flowers and I quite understand that people born in this century may not have the foggiest when I talk about cassettes with their highly vulnerable lengths of brown tape that used to get stuck/chewed/unwound depending on your mood at the time (or so it seemed). That wonderful corrective of inserting a pencil into the spool to wind up the tape is one skill Alexa isn’t ever going to master: AI isn’t the be-all and end-all, after all. This is important, though, for the climax of the play – but no spoolers.

The second relationship is Paul and Joanne – she of the hotels and clubs scenario – Joanne works in a hotel and Paul tries to pick her up in a club. Frequently tries to pick her up in a club. Eventually succeeds. And impresses her with his cooking skills. But from the euphoric high of the early days, when the hotel they work at closes and they lose their jobs they gradually and distressingly sink into the depths of despair where the difficulty of trying to put food on the table is a terrifying and completely unexpected daily reality check and actual hunger is an experience they never knew they would be likely to have.

So, taped voices aside, this is a two-hander, a vibrant, caustic explosive two-hander that takes no prisoners either on stage or in the audience. Ben Castle-Gibb as Paul creates an interesting personality mix early on with his diffidence with people – Joanne in particular – and his strident confidence in his own abilities as a chef. He can cook, he can cook well, and he knows it. His motivation is the voice of his Dad, still counselling him down the years to “be better”, something Paul strives for, something he shows in every spice and herb he adds to the pot: but he lives right out there on the edge and when he loses his raison d’être he snaps, spiralling down into a well of self-pity. Castle-Gibb is superb in this role, entirely convincing, earning our sympathy even though we want – like Joanne – to grab him by the scruff of the neck and scream “Pull yourself together, man!”

As Joanne Boadicea Ricketts is a spiky, irreverent, provocative, goading force of nature. Brash and shouty she runs rings around introvert Paul but as the play develops Ricketts shows that through her passion there is a kind of signature vulnerability – she grew up in foster care – a desperation to have something real, to find a lasting connection which she fights for with all her might so that we finally see her compassion – particularly when recounting her excruciating experience at a Food Bank. A superlative performance by Ricketts and with Castle-Gibb it’s a double that it’s well worth battling the vagaries of weather and train strikes for.

Director Tessa Walker handles the traverse stage well and there is some clever lighting by Matt Haskins. It’s a highly stylised piece with the two performers having to work overtime moving the table and two chairs that comprise the set (design by Cecilia Carey) in balletically choreographed moves throughout the show. It does, though, get to the point when you think “They’re not moving that effing table again, are they?”

But let’s not allow that minor gripe detract from a thoroughly entertaining and deeply moving show from which you will not come away disappointed.

5 Star Rating

Review by Peter Yates

They don’t seem an obvious match. Joanne is spikey, defensive, a survivor, whilst Paul is quiet, considered – and hiding profound grief for his father. But the pleasure he takes in cooking – and the astonishing food he prepares – creates a bond between them. So, when the hotel where they both work closes and they start to spiral into poverty, it throws everything up in the air – first the dreams of a cookbook and a restaurant, and, eventually, even the dreams of a future together…

ARTISTIC TEAM
WRITER GARETH FARR
DIRECTOR TESSA WALKER
DESIGNER CECILIA CAREY
LIGHTING MATT HASKINS
SOUND HOLLY KHAN
MOVEMENT REBECCA WIELD
STAGE MANAGER JEANETTE MAGGS

CAST
PAUL – BEN CASTLE-GIBB
JOANNE – BOADICEA RICKETTS
DAD (RECORDED) – Giles King
YOUNG PAUL (RECORDED) – Rufus Flowers

HAMPSTEAD DOWNSTAIRS / CELIA ATKIN PRESENT
BISCUITS FOR BREAKFAST
BY GARETH FARR
DIRECTED BY TESSA WALKER
https://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/

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  • Peter Yates

    Peter has a long involvement in the theatrical world as playwright, producer, director and designer. His theatre company Random Cactus has taken many shows to the Edinburgh Fringe, the London Fringe and elsewhere and he has been associated with the Wireless Theatre Company since its inception where his short play Lie Detector can be heard: Wireless Theatre Company.

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