The Big Meal, HighTide Festival, Suffolk, UK – review

In a riotous 90 minutes, Dan LeFranc – who received the 2010 New York Times Outstanding Playwright Award – traces a single American family bickering through 80 years of births, marriages and deaths. Jointly presented by Bath’s Theatre Royal and Halesworth’s HighTide Festival, the play is the first production from Michael Boyd since leaving his role as artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

The sprawling family saga begins with the meeting of Sam and Nicole in a restaurant. With slick direction, overlapping dialogue and several margaritas we hurtle through the couple’s first dates to their engagement in under five minutes, before embarking on the tumultuous journey of their family life.

The dining table – and the alcohol – over which Sam and Nicky bond become central motifs as future family gatherings take place in restaurants. Fast-forward through 12 years of marriage and two children, and there are three generations at the table – the adults sniping at each other while the children vie for attention. It is a sharply funny, perfectly pitched depiction of the chaos of family mealtimes, a chaos reiterated by the fact that each cast member relinquishes their role to take up another as their character grows older.

As the years pass, these reunions become increasingly toxic. Like a family in a Jonathan Franzen novel, this dysfunctional group of unlikeable characters is abrasive and antagonistic, each generation trying to shake off the one that came before. Where the fathers become more detached, the mothers become reliant on alcohol. Any flicker of hopefulness is extinguished as divorce, disease and death work their way into the family dynamic. LeFranc’s use of metaphor here is heavy. Food is only ever brought on to feed the dying their last supper, the plates clanging on the table like the tolling of a bell. Lives are claimed painfully and prematurely while the remnants of the family look on.

Though relentlessly clamorous, this production gives just enough silence to the stark truths of mortality lurking in the narrative. Jo Stone-Fewings and Kirsty Bushell lead powerful performances from a cast that must juggle multiple characters. Bushell brilliantly portrays a buoyantly hopeful young woman who becomes bedraggled and boozy, while Diana Quick plays first a dignified grandmother and then an older Nicky with melancholic poise. Keith Bartlett plays her fellow senior citizen while Lindsey Campbell and James Corrigan convey the often misplaced ardour of youth. This challenging family drama is not uplifting, but it is brilliant nonetheless.

HighTide Festival runs to April 19,

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