Cooking With Elvis

(Queensland Theatre Company)

For the first few minutes of Cooking with Elvis you wonder where it’s going. And then you realise that all you’ve got to do is fasten your safety belt, hang on, and go along for the ride, on a roller coaster of emotions through some very dark places where the only part of your body that gets a flailing is your funny bone. But don’t you worry about that, because you’re in the sure hands of Lee Hall, a playwright who knows exactly what he’s doing. And, under Michael Gow’s direction, the fine ensemble cast — led by the exceptional Louise Brehmer in a stellar performance — is one quick step ahead of you all along the line.

This is an English play, translated very effectively into the local scene, with a script that is insightful, cynical, warm, emotional, funny, fraught and — above all — as sharp-edged as the knife that gets brandished in increasingly threatening ways by Brehmer, as she gets into her stride. Brehmer sparkles as brightly as Elvis’s rhinestones in her role as teenage daughter Jill, who is not only our tour guide, but also both the core and the fulcrum around whom the action swirls.

To someone fairly fresh from seeing La Boite’s Salt, I found that Cooking with Elvis had an added resonance. Consider the fact that Elvis happens to be about food, cooking and gastronomy as a metaphor for a dysfunctional relationship between a daughter who is the foodaholic chef reigning supreme in the household kitchen that is the main setting for the play, and a mother who is switched off from reality. Any of that sound at all familiar? Trust me, it is. What I, as a woman, found particularly interesting, then, is the fact that while Salt, which — readers may recall — didn’t really work for me, was written by a woman (Australian Peta Murray), Elvis — which really did (work for me) — was written by a man. Not to mention that Murray and Hall must have been beavering away at their overlapping themes on opposite sides of the globe at roughly the same time. Makes you stop and think.

Not too hard, though, because you certainly don’t want any distractions during the course of Elvis, which has far too much to capture your attention, including a number of extra and — under the circumstances — not surprising dimensions. There is, on the one hand, Jean-Marc Russ as Dad, a quadriplegic ex-Elvis impersonator. Russ not only does a moving line in random and not-so-random twitching in and around his wheel chair, but also adds a surreal note with his remarkably effective interpretation of the voice and pelvis of an ageing Elvis, and his progressive disintegration — during the course of the play — into a paranoia that is larded with some highly unpalatable views on grease and dietary excess.

And — ultimately literally — on the other hand, there is the extremely callow Coles Cake Supervisor, Stuart, played to slow-speaking, dim-witted perfection by Raymond Sullivan. At the beginning, it’s difficult to see where he could go in this part, but it becomes pretty clear, pretty quickly, that it is all the way. Led, initially, by the nose, and some other parts of his anatomy, by Mum. Not your everyday school-marm Mum, though, when played by the stunningly elegant Barbara Lowing whose bitter resentment at her circumstances has her lashing out with cutting wit and flawless timing at her daughter and anybody else in her firing line. As she tries frankly not to give a damn about anything by drowning her sorrows in drink and unsuitable sex, to compensate for a life destroyed by an accident to the husband who had already been a destructive force when whole.

With all of that going on, the music itself shouldn’t be overlooked. As arranged by composer/sound designer Pete Godwin, this revisiting of the territory of Graceland’s King is nostalgia that is both shaken and stirred with an acerbic twist. It goes well with all those X-rated bits that you might have read about, full-frontal nudity, variations on a sexual theme, and language. None of which, judging by the laughter throughout, and the enthusiastic applause at the end of the play, the audience on the night that I was there seemed to see as gratuitous or problematical. Rather, it was all just part of a remarkably absorbing hour and three-quarters whose flow — happily — was not interrupted by an interval.

My only quibbling footnote is that Elvis could take a leaf out of Salt’s book in terms of consistency in its use of food, as a visible part of the play. In particular, why on earth mime the adding of chopped onions to a pot, when every other item of food in this production is out there?

— Anne Ring

(Performance seen: Sat 20th July 2002)