Theatre reviews: Bread & Breakfast | Peak Stuff

The cast of Bread & Breakfast tackle its Fawlty Towers-like script with gusto, but the show lacks the spark of satirical meaning needed to set even the daftest of comedies alight, writes Joyce McMillan

Bread & Breakfast, Oran Mor, Glasgow ***

Peak Stuff, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh ****

Imagine Fawlty Towers wrapped in tartan, and deprived of its central joke about a postwar Englishman who has to make a living playing host to people he views with utter contempt. That’s Kirsty Halliday’s Bread & Breakfast, the second show in the spring season at A Play, A Pie, and A Pint; a bold attempt at a slapstick absurdist farce that has just sold out its entire run at Oran Mor, despite – for me at least – emerging as a slight damp squib in terms of real belly laughs.

The play is set in a bed & breakfast hotel called Nessie’s Rest, although in fact it’s 20 miles from the relevant loch. Jo the student cleaner is doing some completely unhygienic tidying up around the reception area when a hotel inspector arrives, and Jo and hotel owner Irene post him off into the breakfast room with some burnt toast (wiped off on the end of Jo’s apron) and the promise of a cup of tea.

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A few minutes later, though, the inspector is found apparently dead, slumped over his table; and on the slender pretext that he seems to have choked on the offending toast, Irene and Jo launch themselves into a series of ever more desperate efforts to dispose of the body without alerting the local constabulary. To say that all of this stretches credulity is to put it politely; the plot is wafer-thin, and only becomes more so, although there’s a wild ingenuity about its final twists that is funnier than the original set-up.

What’s certain, though, is that in a slightly aimless production by Laila Noble, Maureen Carr as Irene, Erin Elkin as Jo, and James Peake as the inspector and other characters, all work their socks off to deliver as many laughs as they can; in a show that tackles this most difficult of comedy genres with gusto, but lacks that spark of real satirical meaning that is necessary, to set even the daftest of comedies alight.

There’s never a shred of doubt, by contrast, about the central theme of Peak Stuff, the latest touring show from brilliant physical theatre company ThickSkin of Wigan. Written by Billie Collins, Peak Stuff is a dazzlingly eloquent 90-minute monologue for one performer playing three characters; and its subject is the awful crisis of connection, meaning and hope increasingly experienced by younger people in a culture now being strangled and robbed of a future by its own materialism, and its increasing addiction to online interactions that may be hopelessly deceptive and delusional.

Bread & Breakfast PIC: Tommy Ga-Ken WanBread & Breakfast PIC: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
Bread & Breakfast PIC: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

The story is told through three Manchester characters, all played in stunning style by Meg Lewis. There’s thirtysomething Ben, outwardly successful, but inwardly not coping with his mother’s terminal illness, and becoming addicted to online shopping in a way that eventually threatens his life. There’s unemployed graduate Charlie, in his twenties, alone in his room, uncertain whether he exists or not, gradually putting whole chunks of his body up for sale on Etsy. And there’s teenage Alice, so distressed by the spiralling environmental crisis that she starts to plant dead animals around Manchester, on an ever escalating scale.

In terms of structure, the play struggles slightly to bring itself to a conclusion, as it works through three different apocalyptic endings, and a gently hopeful coda. What’s undeniable, though, is the blistering, passionate poetry of the writing; and the fact that director Neil Bettles works his usual mighty theatre magic on the whole piece, transforming Lewis’s performance into a symphony of eloquent language and movement brilliantly lit by Charly Dunford, and backed by a magnificent continuous score by Bettles with Matthew Churcher, performed live on drums by Churcher himself, and greeted with roars of applause, when both remarkable performers finally step up to take their bows.

Bread & Breakfast is at the Traverse, Edinburgh, 5-9 March, and the Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, 12-16 March. Peak Stuff, run completed.