First published in The Times, Friday October 23 2015
Grid Iron, the site-specific specialists, first staged their adaptation of Jim Crace’s fragmentary novel exploring our relationship with food in a branch of Debenhams after hours. A decade on and the backdrops for Ben Harrison’s touring remount are no less intriguing, ranging from a newly restored 200-year-old Custom House to a hotel on the windswept northern Scottish coast.
The department-store setting offered an engagingly multipurpose backdrop for these 14 tales of culinary excess, including bun fights in the kitchenware department and a honeymoon breakfast in the weddings section.
In contrast, this update sustains its eerie atmosphere through a shrewd use of music, composed and performed live by David Paul Jones and Mary Macmaster, and superb lighting, set and costume design, courtesy of Paul Claydon, Claire Halleran and Alison Brown respectively, that transforms the blank canvas stairwell, rooms and corridors into, by turns, a hotel lobby and reception, a GP’s surgery and a Seventies fondue party.
As ever with promenade theatre, a sense of anticipation accompanies us from location to location, with the atmospherics only occasionally broken by the delicate business of arranging the audience in the space. Highlights among the vignettes include the tale of a woman who peppers her soup with her dead husband’s ashes and a dinner party rich in dramatic irony in which a doctor serves Jerusalem artichokes harvested from the bowels of a dying man.
Though we’re accompanied on our journey by a pair of sinister hosts, played with relish by Charlene Boyd and Johnny Austin, the lack of a strong narrative through-line means that the adaptation starts to feel disjointed, particularly towards the end, with one or two of the scenes surplus to requirements. Still, there is much pleasure to be derived from Crace’s sumptuous writing, which is used to season this collection of yarns to mouth-watering effect.
The Haining, Selkirk, Oct 29-Nov 1; Rockfield Centre, Oban, Nov 6-8; Melvich Hotel, Thurso, Nov 13-15; gridiron.org.uk