AMERICAN playwright Dan LeFranc drew on his own experiences of life when he created his “48-hour play” The Big Meal, which opens the Ustinov Studio’s three-play American season, on stage until 5th April.
The stage of the intimate theatre has been stripped bare, tongue-and-grooved wood to half way up the wall, banquettes round the edges, and three tables in the middle.
The story unfolds, loudly and without much pausing, from the moment when Sam and Nicole meet in the restaurant where she works to her death at the end of an eventful life as a wife, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother – covering at least 60 years.
The eight actors are involved in a relay, passing the invisible baton to the next in seniority, vividly emphasising how we become our parents.
The writer, who teaches his craft in US universities, was, with classmates, set the task of writing a play in just two days, and in this he “invented” a new way of crafting dialogue, with characters talking across and through each other.
It takes a bit of getting used to, but the actors here manage magnificently, from the 11-year olds from local drama schools to the old stagers, Diana Quick and Keith Bartlett.
Every bit of the play is set over a meal, but the food only comes on as a metaphor for death. There’s a running joke about racism against Mexicans, but for an English audience it might be more about Americans in general, as piled-high plates of unidentifiable food in primary colours are devoured by those about to kick the bucket.
There are eight roles (various sons, fathers and boyfriends) for James Corrigan, five for Lindsey Campbell (a dead ringer for Amanda Knox), just two for Jo Stone Fewings, three for Kirsty Bushell and young Courtnei Danks (alternating with Zoe Dolly Castle), four for Robbie Whittock (alternating with Jeremy Beker), two for Diana Quick and three for Keith Bartlett.
Michael Boyd directs with the perfect pace, and the lighting, designed by Oliver Fenwick, provides signposts for the audience.
I would have preferred the writer to have researched the language of the late 50s and early 60s more rigorously. The opening scenes are littered with current idiom. But then he didn’t have much time for such intricacies.
The Big Meal is a fascinating start to another Ustinov season, this one not in repertory, but each play with a whole new company.
The others are Steady Rain, by Keith Huff, from 9th April to 10th May, and Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel, from 29th May to 28th June. To find out more, visit the Theatre Royal Bath website or pick up a season programme – no details of the second two plays are in The Big Meal programme.