Theatre review: Food at the Riverside Parramatta

Thanks to Riverside Parramatta, we got to see Food on its opening night. Written and Co-Directed by multiple award nominee Stephen Rodgers, alongside fellow award winning Co-Director and choreographer, Kate Champion. The play delves into the less than harmonious relationship of two sisters, Nancy (Emma Jackson) and Elma (Mel King).

Nancy is a ‘wild child’ – the child of her mother. She has always done what she wants when she wants, with most of her thinking and actions revolving around sex. During the opening scene, in which another woman sits in the darkness, Nancy is seen dancing sensually and writhing against a wooden backdrop seemingly moving deeper into the throes of passion. But the brutality of her thrusts, the sheer terror in her eyes and dark, broody lighting imply a more sinister sequence of events. It’s a disturbing scene that immediately impacts the audience whom are unable to gather if the event is in the present or a past memory that rises to the surface every once in a while, never to be forgotten.

The lights come up and the focus falls on the other lady whom we find to be Elma, older sister to Nancy, working away in what looks be a small commercial kitchen. She is a complete contrast to Nancy in that she is predictable, loyal, hardworking and dull. Their roles, we would later find out, have been ingrained in them from their childhood, the final legacy of unknown fathers and an absentee mother.

It transpires that the sisters trying to make their takeaway joint on the fringe of society a success. Elma, in true fashion, is happy with the life that she has made herself. It’s neat, tidy and without hope of ever being anything close to exciting. Nancy seeks to change all this by trying to inspire Elma to believe in herself, and her ability to cook. Her motives are anything but selfless though, as she yearns for a more exhilarating existence than the one she is living.

Eventually, she convinces her sister to take the plunge and turn their greasy spoon into a fully-fledged restaurant. But to do so they’ll need help. Enter fast talking Turkish immigrant, Hakan, the life-loving traveller and joker played by Fayssal Bazzi. Up to this point in the play the moments of comedy have been fleeting and undermined by the disturbing opening sequence. But with the arrival of sweet Hakan, the performance starts to become the comedy you may have imagined it to be. He’s innocent, charming and slightly naive. He has a longing to sing and cook, and for the younger sister Nancy.

With the injection of Hakan, the restaurant slowly but surely, begins to become a success. Seeing her sister happy for the first time Nancy wants to extend the feeling for her by persuading Hakan to spend the night with her, assuring him that it’s what she ‘needs’.

This is part of Nancy’s problem – she associates happiness with sex when the brief glimpses into her past that that the audience are made aware of prior to this tryst would suggest that sex has anything for Nancy but unhappy recollections of gang rape. In fact, neither sister survived their childhood unscathed. There are allusions to the rape, a negligent mom that picked on Elma about her weight and eating habits to such an extent that she developed an eating disorder and other grievances.

Nancy’s antics also had a profound effect on Elma’s self-esteem and when she stumbled upon the gang rape of Nancy she failed to act and instead chose to sit outside on the deck with a ‘freak’, eating salt and vinegar crisps and eventually intimating that something happened with her crisp companion who asked her if she was like her sister with “two arms and three holes” (who says there are not gentlemen anymore).

Elma’s incompleteness is touched on elegantly by the character when referencing a particular evening when, having refused to eat, her mother has instructed her to sit at the table until she has finished her meal. The night goes by and still Elma refuses until she is carried to bed by her sister. During the scene she muses “When you sit at a table that long, a little bit of you always remains”. Undoubtedly, this is just one occasion that has gradually eroded at the weary Elma.

Following the encounter of Elma and Hakan, the latter does not return to work and the strain on the relationship between the sisters is palpable, although the last scene leads the audience to believe that they can rise above it and maintain their relationship, as they have done so many times before. Essentially they have no choice as, in essence, they only have one another.

Food is a well-crafted dramatic, rather than choreographic, piece that utilises the strengths of the actors rather than focusing on their lack of ‘dance’ experience. Their actions are slow and methodical, bar the odd solo dance or interactive sequence, and exhibit an inherent longing for freedom (from each other, their lives, from themselves – the audience never really know).

With only three actors, the success of the piece undoubtedly rides on the abilities of the actors and their charisma. Fortunately all three are accomplished and have their role to play. Fayssal Bazzi plays the Turkish traveller brilliantly with a funny, charismatic and charming nature that puts everyone around him at ease. His childlike innocence almost has the ability to break down the walls that each of the sisters have erected to deal with the ghosts of their pasts.

Mel King plays the worrisome Elma to a tee – drawing the audience in and enveloping them in her stoic and lonely nature, which is mingled with comedic observations that are mostly at Nancy’s or her own expense.

Emma Jackson’s portrayal of the wild (and damaged) Nancy is a great performance, as she encapsulates the brassy exterior of the character that has developed as a defence mechanism from a broken childhood, whilst at times this is punctuated by a lost innocence of a youth never lived. Her actions are as much a reaction to her childhood and her association with sex and happiness will, ultimately, be one that will define her.

Credit should also be given for the set design which is simple yet effective. It consists of basic cooking utensils and table in the foreground, some pot and pans strewn around the room and on the wall, an ornate arrangement of pots of varying sizes. Throughout the play, these are used to heighten the mood at particular points with lights reflecting almost hypnotically from them, creating a noir ambience that is dominated by the low-key lighting and inspires in the audience waves of the disorientation, loneliness and entrapment that has defined the existence of the sisters.

Food is an unexpected delight. Comedic moments and audience interaction, particularly the handing out of wine and soup to audience members, help to assuage some of the grief the audience experience when learning the details of the two sisters broken childhood – particularly that of Nancy. It has a dash of drama, a sprig of comedy and a hefty dose of reality that creates a winning recipe.

The play will run at the Riverside Parramatta until the 5th July. Tickets are around $48 with concessions available. Check out the trailer below.

4 out of 5

Spot On                                                                     Weak Spots

Great character development                        A lot of swearing and sexual references

Set design is simple but effective