The Big Meal (The Ustinov, Bath)

”The Big Meal” is structurally wonderful but melodramatically frustrating at the same time

There is a lot of shouting in The Big Meal. At every family occasion, there is a new slanging match ready to begin, a fight to break out, a cacophony of voices rising in unison as yet another family occasion descends into an American version of Eastenders. The 95 minutes pass by entertainingly enough, but Dan Le Franc‘s beautifully constructed piece feels flattened by the melodrama; you leave wishing for a quieter, more reflective piece, wanting to feel more moved.

It’s the brilliant structure of Le Franc’s writing that will be best remembered, as we follow Sam and Nicole from the his first clumsy pick up line uttered in a restaurant, to eventual old age and the large family this original chance meeting spawned, with all the scenes taking place around gatherings at restaurants. As the actors take on, discard and inhabit each others roles, we are reminded how each of us makes a mark in the world in infinite ways. Without that first meeting, the countless lives we see would never have occurred; how a simple act of speaking can create infinite lives. It’s as mind-bending in its way as Nick Payne’s Constellation, but whereas that kept its complexions rooted firmly in the twee, this throws in enough fights, drink and death to rival the Kennedy clan, and a metaphor with food and death that by the end feels stretched.

You can see why it was a hit in America, where these big demonstrations are as traditional as apple pie, but in Britain, where it is what remains unsaid that defines most families, it becomes hard to relate to and consequently be moved by the action. The work from cast and creative are exemplary though; director Michael Boyd seems to have taken his RSC ensemble ideas and moulded an octet who each has their moment to shine. Alongside the two children (Courtnei Danks and Jeremy Becker on press night) James Corrigan and Lindsay Campbell play the late teens, early twenties versions of the family, with definition, poise, sparkle and tease; Jo Stone-Fewings and Kirsty Bushell take most of the emotional heavy lifting, as dreams drift into painful reality and Diana Quick and Keith Bartlett provide the most tender work, along with providing Bartlett with an exit round for a particularly robust consumption of a plate of food (a theatrical first?).

One wonders though, whether there is much substance to The Big Meal outside its fine construction and decent production. As death follows death, and more and more tragedy befalls what is at heart a "true" American family, we begin to question whether La Franc ran out of confidence in his original idea and threw in catastrophe rather then character to drive the piece along. Still, it's a good appetizer for the two plays A Steady Rain and Intimate Apparel still to play In the upcoming American season at the Ustinov. Perhaps those will be more filling.

The Big Meal is at the Ustinov Studio, Bath, until 5 April and will then tour to HighTide Festival in Suffolk 10-19 April.

– Kris Hallett