Café of the Damned is the second play in Jim Mannering’s trilogy, the first being Dark Room (some of you may recall my 5-star review last year). In much anticipation, and hopeful that Jim hadn’t fallen prey to “second work syndrome”, I made my way to the Etcetera Theatre to see what Common Denominator’s Café of the Damned had in store for me.
And what can I say other than, Wow! What a comeback this piece this is, it superseded my expectations in every way. The piece stands alone as a great piece of theatre, but also connects Mannering’s other work by all the characters inhabiting the same universe! A dark and depraved universe which I hope I never have to witness.
In terms of the production, the piece is very pacey and runs just short of 60 minutes although, in all honesty, I felt like I was in there for less than half an hour. The piece is a dark comedy with multiple laugh-out-loud moments, a few misdirects, twists and turns and a couple of moments where you find yourself looking away from the action in disgust of the character’s behaviour. It’s truly sinister and twisted, yet also hugely amusing and great fun to watch.
Through a cast of five, the piece follows the activities taking place in a nondescript café, in a nondescript town. The day starts, as usual, the same customers, the same breakfast orders, the same banter, but this day is not ordinary, it’s like nothing any of the clientele have experienced before and as the action unfolds we learn why. I don’t want to give too much away in this review, you’ll have to catch the action for yourself, but if you are one for character comedy and like things with a deep and un-nerving feel about them, then this play is for you.
The cast skilfully bring to life a group of rather strange yet compelling characters; Café owner Princess, Rekha (John-Cheriyan) her employee Petra (Beth Mullen) Petra’s boyfriend Tomas (Jim Mannering) and two of their usual customers, Christopher (Matthew Carter) and CJ the Busker, with his impeccable musical timing and unassuming wit (David Hemsted).
Each character is well-developed with a solid backstory woven into their portrayal. Matthew Carter is particularly compelling as Christopher, he is a pure pleasure to watch, even though the character does at one point feel the need to trim his nostril hairs! I also really enjoyed Beth Mullen’s portrayal as waitress Petra. Her comic timing really worked well and her ability to stare into space was really spell-binding. In all honesty, each of the characters has been written to really showcase the actor’s abilities whilst Mannering takes a step back and lets his fellow cast members play for laughs whilst he takes on a more serious role.
David Hemsted weaves the story together as CJ the Busker, he has some of the best lines in the production and delivers them really well to huge laughs. I particularly enjoyed his rendition of Sting’s “Every Breath you take”. He has excellent comic-timing and provides much of the pace for the piece.
The characterisation is, in fact, my favourite thing about Mannering’s writing and directing. He pays huge attention to detail, and his observant eye beautifully catches a person’s foibles and idiosyncrasies and bring them to life on the stage. In Café of the Damned, Mannering showcases the worst in humanity. For me, it could easily be an episode in Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected. I hope I don’t have to wait another year for Part 3 of this trilogy.
Review by Faye Stockley
A comic thriller, set in the third cheapest diner in a coastal town with no name.
The customers are old, underemployed and over-medicated. They sip tea and trade small-talk to pass the time.
Prime Ministers come and go, Royals marry, the country joins and leaves Europe, wars begin and end, but the cafe remains forever the same. Nothing happens. Until one day it does.
Describing his new play, writer and producer Jim Mannering said: “This is the second of a trilogy of plays, they are all unrelated and stand-alone stories, but set in the same quirky world. Last year’s Dark Room was the first of the series. These are apparently ordinary people all leading intriguing lives. I’m interested in creating pared-back, gripping stories animated by excellent actors.
Booking to 15th July 2018
Above the Oxford Arms, 265 Camden High Street, London NW1 7BU