Cooking with Elvis

Lee Hall

Live Theatre

Live Theatre, Newcastle

From 17 October 2013 to 23 November 2013

Review by Peter Lathan

In its 40th year Live Theatre is reviving one of its big hits from the last century, Lee Hall’s Cooking with Elvis, which was first produced in 1998 and which I reviewed at the 1999 Edinburgh Fringe.

I gave it five stars then so I was interested to see how it has stood up to the passage of time. It has had many productions since then (as far afield as Peru and Korea) and is, in fact, the most produced of Hall’s plays which, given his long association with the venue, makes it an appropriate anniversary revival.

It has the same director, Max Roberts, and one of the original cast, Joe Caffrey, reprises his role as Dad/Elvis. He is joined by Victoria Bewick (Jill) in her first professional production, Tracy Whitwell (Mam) and Riley Jones (Stuart), fresh from performing (along with Caffrey) in last month’s Wet House and in the most recent national tour of The Pitmen Painters, another of Hall’s very successful plays for Live.

The good news is that it stands up very well indeed. Some contemporary references have been updated but the core of the play remains unchanged: Dad, an Elvis impersonator, is in a vegetative state after a serious car crash and Mam and daughter Jill try to cope, Mam by sexual encounters with younger men and 14-year old Jill by cooking. From time to time Dad gets out of his wheelchair to perform part of his Elvis act, not just singing but speaking too.

Hall plays with theatrical convention as Jill addresses the audience directly, announcing scene summaries from time to time, and many of the Elvis scenes become very surreal with the rest of the cast becoming backing singers and dancers. It’s very funny, even hilarious, and sexually pretty explicit. The press night audience certainly found it so and laughed long and loud, but beneath the hilarity lie the complexities and emotions involved in caring for the severely disabled, and, indeed, what might be going on in the head of the disabled man himself.

This depth is what makes it much more than a comedy and has given the play its longevity.

It’s a fine cast, too, and quite a tour de force for the youngest member, Victoria Bewick, who really captures that complexity of feeling which is a young teenage girl. Unsurprisingly Joe Caffrey is equally compelling, alternating from the brain-dead Dad to the burger-consuming Elvis with deceptive ease. Riley Jones gives Stuart a vulnerability beneath an assumed self-confidence which is quite endearing and Tracy Whitwell’s hard-faced Mam never quite conceals her inner pain—a nicely subtle (if that is the right word for such a woman!) performance.

It’s a production which does full justice to a play which well deserves revival.