Having had one or two bad experiences with painfully long and badly written one-handers in the past, It was admittedly with some trepidation that I went to review this London premiere of Rachael's Cafe at the Old Red Lion. The subject matter sounded rather hit and miss too - potentially disastrous in the wrong hands.
I needn't have worried.
Rachael's Cafe is the heart-warming and inspiring tale of Eric Winiger, a 6ft tall, middle-class, churchgoing husband and father of three from sleepy Bloomington, Indiana, who, about 7 years ago, took the incredibly brave decision to live as a transgender woman. The shock and lack of acceptance in the local community was such that, unable to gain employment, Rachael started her own business, Rachael's Café. Whilst struggling with no funding at the outset, the café is now a great success, a warm, welcoming and creative place which banishes any form of segregation and where Rachael strives to uphold the ethos "everyone is welcome, no exceptions".
Lucy Danser's script recounts Rachael's story in the form of an hour-long monologue and Graham Elwell's delivery and portrayal of the protagonist is perfect. The actor creates an immediate bond with the audience with eye contact, direct address and interaction, drawing us into the tale, exuding just the right level of endearing and gentle gawkiness. Moments of extreme sadness and difficulty in the shape of memories of rude and hurtful visitors to the café are intermingled with more joyful moments of kindness, the most touching of which is a phone call from Rachael's youngest daughter, Gracie, who invites her to attend a school presentation as Rachael, not Eric, for the first time. This loving and innocent acceptance of a child set against a backdrop of adult fear, ignorance and prejudice is perfectly pitched, incredibly moving and just one highlight in an excellent script which delivers some great moments of humour, too.
Martin Thomas's set design is straightforward and works well. We are simply visitors to a friendly little café one evening, listening in as the proprietor busies herself clearing up after a day's trade and gets a little lost in her fascinating memories. Effective use of lighting by Owen Evans tracks the mood changes of the piece well, for example the darkened moment when Rachael switches from her calm, genteel self to portray the misdirected anger and over-inflated masculinity and prejudice of a Texan visitor.
This debut by Lucy Danser simply gets it right on every level. You will leave feeling enriched, encouraged and, above all, safe in the knowledge you have spent an hour of your life well.