This is the third time that Gareth Tudor Price has directed Lee Hall’s challenging comedy, Cooking with Elvis, for Hull Truck Theatre with pretty much the same cast. There might therefore have been a hint of staleness, of repeating old successes, were it not for two factors.
The previous two productions were in the old Spring Street Theatre and the 2010 version uses the new building effectively, from the Elvis memorabilia and pre-show Elvis impersonator in the foyer (Fridays only!) to the canny lighting of Graham Kirk, at times isolating the crippled father in a sort of blaze of darkness.
Secondly the freshness of newcomer Victoria Elliott’s performance spreads throughout the production. She is the link to the audience in an oddly, but cleverly, constructed play, stridently announcing the scenes and at the end (just in case we hadn’t realised this is not real) acknowledging the glibness of the happy-ever-after epilogue. Lee Hall uses monologues, Elvis songs and farcical short scenes to make quite serious points about the collapse of relationships and self-esteem.
Dad is a 38-year-old Elvis impersonator confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak after a motor accident which may have been partly the result of marital troubles. His daughter, Jill, compensates for the sense of loss by cooking and eating incessantly, his wife takes to the bottle and picking up younger men – each is disgusted by the other’s conduct. When Mam brings home Stuart, outwardly conventional and dopily obliging, he ends up as a sort of homely Mr. Sloane, satisfying the needs of a household before being conveniently transformed into the enemy of domestic bliss.
The tone of the play and the production constantly shifts, sometimes subtly, sometimes crudely. Within the first few minutes Mam is demanding that the newly arrived Stuart take off all his clothes and the play is often so explicit that the programme feels the need to point out that “it depends on how it’s handled” – some of the most explicit scenes, it should be said, such as the sex-and-cake episode with Stuart and Jill, are among the most hilarious. On the other hand, there are touching and truthful monologues for Jill and Mam, and the imagined Elvis’s wonderfully deadpan accounts of his food intake or going to Washington to meet the President.
Chris Connel and Jackie Lye know their way round the parts of Stuart and Mam perfectly, though he still tends to over-caricature the many moments of panic. Despite the character’s excesses, she actually makes us believe in the English teacher gone wrong (though why no exercise books?). Jim Kitson (Dad) breaks out into Elvis with great brio, negotiates those faux-country boy monologues beautifully and also acts as musical arranger. Victoria Elliott, if not entirely convincing as a 14-year-old, is outstanding, from her stomping walk to her intense, but vaguely undirected, commitment – and she also throws herself whole-heartedly into the role of one of those backing singers who once reduced Elvis to hysterical laughter.