Is food as we have been brought up to believe the language of love, or just a language? This is the conundrum that is at the crux of Peta Murray’s play, Salt, where she uses kitchens and cooking as the launching, lunching and lunging pads for a mother and daughter coming to grips with a relationship that is more bitter than sweet.
It is exciting, and it is right, that food which plays such a central role in family life should be given a star turn in a play about family tensions. There is an air of expectancy from the moment you enter the theatre and see what you know is a fully functional kitchen. How is it going to work? And, of course, just as in real life, it works so naturally that if it weren’t for its novelty value you wouldn’t think twice about it as a means through which two women tell their very different stories, and try to express their feelings to and about each other.
It is the ways in which they do all of this that boils down to a question of taste and, specifically, how much an individual enjoys a play that is highly textured and richly perhaps too richly flavoured. Nouvelle cuisine this is not. Instead, we are served up such a melange of theatrical devices and crisscrossing narrative streams that we are left with what happens when the layers of an onion are peeled away: lots of tears, but very little heart.
And, it has to be said, an additional layer of confusion has been added to this production by casting as mother Laurel and daughter Meg two very able actresses who look a bit too close in age to be in that relationship. I hope I won’t be pilloried for saying that it actually took me a little while to be sure of who was which, not aided by the fact that more often than not they were both calling each other by nick-, pet and first names.
With the ghost of Ruth Cracknell in the wings, Judith Arthy has of course the more difficult part to play. As many will have read in the obituaries following the death of this national treasure, Laurel was Cracknell’s last role before falling ill. It is a moving coincidence that the Brisbane first night was on the same day as her funeral, and impossible not to imagine her in the part. It is a wonderful part for an older woman, and while Arthy makes a testily vulnerable mother, she needs to age more into the role.
And, more carping about age, Sally Mckenzie on the other hand appears to be perhaps a shade beyond the stage of the biological clock ticking in daughter Meg. In every other way, however, she cooks and plays up a storm as a soured woman, one who has spent her life trying to meet her unrequited emotional needs through gastronomy: that is, the art of good eating, rather than the act of compensatory eating.
Interwoven throughout the play is the treatment of food as a two-edged necessity of life, if not love. It can, equally easily, be used to nourish, or to poison. Presenting this proposition with devilish charm is the third party to the mother and daughter duo. As the man, Steve Greig gets to play not only an ironic commentator on food, but also various men in the lives of Laurel and Meg. And he makes the switches between passionate Spaniard and ocker Aussie with credible ease.
Director Michael Futcher’s production works extremely well in La Boite’s theatre-in-the-round, the shifts in time are effectively rung by Matt Scott’s lighting, and Greg Clarke can design my kitchen any time. In Salt, however, Murray uses this location to put a new spin on the face of the old kitchen-sink drama, by paring a homage on food preparation down for its insights into the way that ageing colours the needs of the needy and the dementing.