Theatre review: The Devil’s Larder, Leith

The Devils Larder was served up cold, but this may have been due to the venue, Leith's old Customs House
The Devils Larder was served up cold, but this may have been due to the venue, Leith's old Customs House
  • The Devil’s Larder - Customs House, Leith
  • * * *
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There are moments when it certainly looks and feels like a giant larder, the old Customs House at Leith. It’s cold, dank and northerly, with slamming doors and echoing corridors; and its large, austere spaces cast a strange pall of bleakness over this ten-years-on revival of The Devil’s Larder, based on Jim Crace’s “cumulative novel in 64 parts” about food and its meanings, and first created by Edinburgh-based site-specific company Grid Iron for the Edinburgh Fringe of 2005.

Back then, the predominant impression created by the show was of heat, including the body-heat of the tightly-packed Fringe audience; in the winding spaces of an upper floor of Debenham’s on Princes Street, it was all lust and greed and hellfire, an intense theatrical journey around the things we yearn for, but which may also kill or damn us.

Ten years on though, things are chillier, more diffuse, and much less luscious to look at, as the audience of 40 or so moves from staircase to balcony to a series of dingy, almost classroom-like spaces in which the flame of sensuality struggles to make itself felt; not until this production moves on to the three other venues on its forthcoming tour will it be clear whether that sense of coldness and loss belongs to the Customs House, or to this latest version of the show itself.

If the overall impact of the show is muted, though, there’s still a great deal for the imagination to feast on in director Ben Harrison’s latest version of Crace’s fascinating text.

Over 13 scenes – with an introduction from a gleaming devil and his lady demon, glamorously played by Johnny Austin and Charlene Boyd – the audience travel from the hotel corridor where a migrant room-service maid lingers over discarded trays of food, through a 1970s fondue party that suddenly starts to swing, to the final resonant story of a hotel fishing holiday gone wrong.

David Paul Jones’s music – performed and sung live, with Mary McMaster on harp – is a haunting collage of old songs and harmonies; the four-strong acting company, which also includes Ashley Smith and Antony Strachan, conjures up dozens of characters, weird, grotesque and poignant.

And even if the thrilling heat of the inferno is missing this time, this Devil’s Larder is still a place well worth a visit; for those who have never been there yet, and for those who went once before, and may now be surprised at how the place has changed.

Customs House, Leith, tonight, and on tour to Selkirk, Oban and Melvich, until 15 November