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A CurtainUp London Review
There is much to like about James Graham's romp through the century looking at Alexis Soyer's influence. We follow his life from beginnings in Paris inspired by French revolutionaries to coming to Ireland, to Wales, to working for a Scots family in London until he gains the appointment of Chef de Cuisine at the famous gentleman's club, the Reform Club in London. Besides producing dishes of great gastronomic reputation, Soyer (James Walker) also pioneers soup kitchens to feed the poor and the portable field stove to feed the troops during the Crimea War, a pioneering cookbook The Gastronomic Regenerator and is consulted by Messrs Crosse and Blackwell to invent recipes for bottled sauces and pickles.
As with all large cast productions there is great enthusiasm from the 60 strong cast especially as the imaginatively choreographed chorus of busy chefs and waiters. The group work is particularly strong and the direction by Paul Roseby pertinent. For instance, in the studio of Emma the portrait painter who is to become the future Mrs Soyer (Hannah Morrish), the extras pose aligned on the gallery, their head and shoulders in picture frames like portraits on the wall. I was blown away by the costume design using kitchen utensils in an inventive way. The young Princess Victoria (Daniella Isaacs) has a headdress made up of silver teaspoons, earrings of wire whisks and as a mature woman, Queen Victoria Rosie Sansom) wears a crinoline frock, the enormous skirt of which is constructed from sieves, fish fryers, egg whisks and spoons. Soyer's ballerina friend is dressed in a concoction of pink rubber gloves arranged on her ballooning skirt, stuffed on her shoulders like angel wings and most curiously, two more clasping two perfectly round metal dishes which serve as a brassiere. The design is clever and innovative.
If slightly overlong, maybe needing a reduction like the finest sauce bases, James Graham's epic script uses witty anachronisms, topical references to amuse with comments about the "after the event" life of the Great Exhibition purpose built building, the Crystal Palace then in Hyde Park, comparing it by allusion to the Dome built for the Year 2000 and the arguments about stadia being built at present for the 2012 Olympics in London. I loved too Crosse and Blackwell stressing that they were partners in the business sense, not any other! Graham's creation of the gung ho, swearing Florence Nightingale (Tamsin Dowsett) is a joy, probably deserving of a play of her own, but her language for fear of shocking the parents, may limit the obvious market for Relish, that of productions set in schools!
Relish revolves around the volatile and passionate personality of Alexis Soyer with his overly large red painter's beret and his large ego. We see Soyer's ruthless persecution with a pepper pot of a customer who has the temerity to ask for more pepper on his dish of lamb. We understand the tempestuous relationship between their star chef and the governors of the Reform Club who make decisions using snooker balls, a preponderance of black balls meaning they are voting to oust someone, hence the expression "blackballed". There is tragedy when Alexis loses his wife and son to childbirth, the career chef having spent too little time at home. Joe Cole as Cockney London chef, Eddie injects some realism into the narrative with his observations.
Relish is staged with the audience seated either side of a raised stage and with a gallery connected to the main playing area by a lift, both used by the director for effect so that the board members of the Reform club judge from on high. Besides a few actor musicians, there is use of song too including the inspiring "Marseillaise"as we contemplate Alexis Soyer's revolutionary roots. The only missing ingredients are the real smells and sounds of cooking presumably scuppered by the fire regulations at the Tramshed. Yes there is banging of pots and pans but not the sizzling of real food that we have seen onstage in Vincent, The Dead Monkey and most recently in Shirley Valentine.
The ensemble cast work hard but special mention must go to James Walker who maintains his French accent for the duration and who has an enormously energetic part as the talented and visionary chef. James Graham once more comes up with an imaginative and original piece to craft a play about, based in history and truth, but which dovetails into a modern celebrity obsession.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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