COOKING WITH ELVIS
Melanie trained at Drama Studio London, Since graduating she has worked in both Theatre and Screen. Theatre credits include: Cecily in Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple (The Carriage-Works, Leeds); Mel in Shakers Re-stirred , (Regional Tour); Eva in And Then They Came For Me (The Lyric Theatre & UK Tour) and Catherine of Aragon in Divorced, Beheaded, Died (Jermyn Street Theatre).
Other roles include Polly Garter, Mrs Die-Bread 2, Mrs Willy Nilly and Mrs Pugh in Under Milkwood (North-East Eng Tour); Barbara in Such Art, Such Beauty (Etcetera Theatre); Lady Percy in Henry IV 1 & 2 (1399 Theatre Company at Warkworth Castle).
Screen credits include: Mary in The Angel (Gate 2 Films); Wendy in The Sad Bear ( S.H.A.M. Films); Linda in Computer Games (Eyeline Productions) and Mrs Robinson in Teen Diary (English International Pictures).
Lee Hall has included everything a comedy should have in his landmark play – a man in a persistent vegetative state, pedophilia, masturbation with savory overtones and cannibalism.
It is a classic of its time and Ovation’s production does it no shame. It would be easy to do Cooking With Elvis very badly indeed. The comedy is, obviously, finely balanced, and the script subtle and best underplayed.
Director John Plews understands it all with this production, which adds Upstairs at the Gatehouse’s handmade charm – something that only enhances the domestic camp in the Elvis song routines.
Elvis/dad was played by Mario Kombou on review night – an officially endorsed Elvis tribute act and one of the ten best in the world, apparently. He is also a trained actor. This gives the songs more purpose other than some camp indulgence.
It makes more obvious the strange parallels that this play has with Elvis’ own life – both Mam and Jill have eating disorders, as did Elvis, Stuart’s affair with Jill is shocking as she is only 14, as was Priscilla when she first met Elvis (I’ve checked!). With Elvis, these things were let go, Hall seems to be saying, whereas in a domestic Newcastle home, they are appropriately shocking.
Performances are strong, as are the Newcastle accents, and casting is good. Catherine Nix-Collins swings from food-obsessed schoolgirl to minxy Lolita with ease, Melanie Dagg as Mam drags herself through the stress of having her abusive husband a cabbage and her only 38, and William Reay presents a pleasant Stuart, which makes his pedophilic act all the more shocking.
A good, solid production, with an impressive Vegas ending thanks to Gemma Harris & Stephie Hoyle’s well-constructed set.
It’s fairly rare to find an Elvis impersonator and a tortoise sharing a stage and yet here we have it in Lee Hall’s Cooking with Elvis. First staged at the 1999 Edinburgh Fringe with a subsequent transfer to the West End, Cooking with Elvis is back in London serving up a tasty treat.
Lee Hall, best known for writing the screenplay for the film Billy Elliot tells a very dark but funny tale of ‘Dad’ – a wheelchair bound “cripple” (the result of a terrible crash) who dreams of being an Elvis tribute act. Meanwhile his wife and daughter Jill antagonise each other as they struggle to cope with their inner frustrations.
I’m not sure if it’s the voice of Big Brother or Cheryl Cole on the X Factor but there is something about the Geordie accent that makes you pay attention and Hall’s dialogue in Cooking with Elvis is no different. You cannot help but be drawn into the conversations of this dysfunctional family.
Whilst the activities in this Northern household are utterly bizarre, the dialogue remains completely normal, thus making the events that unfold all the more peculiar.
It is hard to believe this Mother and daughter are related as Mam refuses to eat and drinks herself into oblivion while fourteen year old Jill finds solace in the kitchen cooking and eating everything she can get her hands on. When Mam invites her twenty-eight year old lover, Stuart, to move into the family home with her, her daughter Jill, her paralysed husband and their tortoise, things go from the bizarre to the completely surreal as Stuart gets a little too close with Jill and goes above and beyond in an attempt to “help” Dad out. Not to mention the breakout Elvis moments that punctuate the piece when Dad springs to life performing various Elvis Presley songs, to which the family are completely oblivious.
Despite first impressions this is a pretty depressing script and director John Plews achieves just the right amount of tongue in cheek attitude. The cast expertly tread that tightrope of finding humour without indulging it. Catherine Nix-Collins in particular is superb as a troubled teenager, struggling to digest the enormity of what is going on around her and her skilful negotiation of constantly eating throughout the majority of her dialogue is to be applauded.
Cooking with Elvis has all the ingredients for a hit and, let’s face it, Mario Kombou is pretty much the closest you’ll ever get to seeing Elvis in Highgate. Over the top costumes and a voice that has been officially endorsed by Graceland; he’s a pretty good substitute for the real thing.
He ain’t nothin’ but a stage hog
THIS black comedy by Lee Hall is about a dysfunctional family in the north-east of England. Mam is anorexic and firmly believes that her 14-year-old daughter, Jill, who loves to eat, is morbidly obese.
She has been landed with an almost unbearable burden when her big handsome husband – an Elvis impersonator – is turned into a vegetative state after a motor accident. Dad just sits in his wheelchair covered in a blanket as the lives of his wife and daughter are enacted out in front of him.
When Mam brings home her hunky and very young lover – who happens to be a baker’s delivery man bearing cakes and buns accidents are just waiting to happen. Some of these – but by no means all – are down to the constant presence of the family tortoise, Stanley who always manages to get under peoples’ feet.
What none of the characters know is that Dad, when left on his own, throws off his blanket to reveal himself in his Elvis persona – white jump suits with diamante and fringe –to perform a number appropriate to the state of the story.
Director John Plews has encouraged some outstanding performances. Melanie Dagg is attractively thin and sexy as Main, Stuart is well hunky in the person of William Reay and we are afforded the privilege of more than glimpses of his naked body on several occasions. And Catherine Nix-Collins is stunning as a Lolita-type teenager.
The naturally magnificent presence of Mario Kombou as Dad is bound to steal the show. His full throated voice has the power and purity of the great man himself.
Gemma Harris and Stephie Hoyle are responsible for the multiple set, which itself holds many surprises, with glitter ball and star cloth used to great effect.
This is a well balanced, highly professional production with much hilarity – and humping – along the way. I suppose it could affect some of a nervous disposition, but I sat next to a frail old lady who was obviously delighted by the whole thing.
We’re all hungry, one way or another. Even Elvis, who seemed to have everything, could never get enough burgers – and Jill (Catherine Nix-Collins, excellent), is considerably less fortunate than the King. Stuck at home with a quadriplegic dad and an irresponsible mother, Jill is cooking – and eating – everything in sight. Meanwhile, Mam (Melanie Dagg) is hurling wine down herself and picking up young cake factory-supervisor Stuart (William Reay). But a drunk, a priapic youngster, a troubled teen and an invalid who once thought he was Elvis is a hell of a set of ingredients.
Lee Hall wrote ‘Billy Elliot’ and ‘The Pitmen Painters’: his subjects are bright, socially circumscribed Geordies struggling to use their considerable talents. This fringe show, with its nifty set and acts like crippled Dad leaping up to sing throw a custard pie at theatrical reality – so if a line falls flat or a partition wobbles, never mind: the fourth wall has already toppled. The sexual and emotional shenanigans make this a great party to crash: karaoke has nothing on ‘Cooking With Elvis’.
Go, go, go to see Cooking with Elvis. It’s on for just a few weeks at The Gatehouse in Highgate, London N6.
This is not a new play. It was written and first shown at The Live Theatre in Newcastle in 1999, before going to receive high acclaim at the Edinburgh Festival later that year. Its author Lee Hall, is a prolific writer. Amongst his works is the screen play of the film Billy Elliot for which he received an Oscar nomination.
How does Elvis feature in this? I wondered. I imagined something coarse, crude, a parody of the real thing. I was told it had bad language, and that perhaps I needed to be broadminded. So I prepared myself for the worst. What I saw was the best.
Cooking with Elvis gives a new dimension to kitchen sink drama. Family life with all its vagaries, agonies, and traumas, but it’s all in the telling of the story.
This production was captivating from the very first entrance made by Catherine Nix-Collins who plays Jill the daughter and the play’s narrator. Nix-Collins is a breath of fresh air and this young actress has far to go.
William Reay played Stuart so perfectly that we saw every facet of the character he was portraying. Stuart was real in every detail, his body language, his expression, and his voice. Mam was played by Melanie Dagg. We saw the guilt. the lost passon of her reltionship, it was all there for her.
Mario (Elvis / Dad) has been endorsed by Gracelands and the Elvis Presley Estate as one of the top ten tribute artists in the world. He was outstanding as Elvis, and from certain angles was a perfect image. I was smiling throughout his performance.
The music, the lighting, the effects were completely unobtrusive, in their virtual perfection. And we were offered a great finale. Even the set changes, mainly done by Nix-Collins were in character and added to the production.
This was an evening to remember. With that extra 5 per cent it would have been outrageously good. This is a production worthy of the West End. Go and see it. It’s worth every penny. Be aware there are some sexual scenes, which were probably inserted for their shock value. I preferred to see them in the way that they were written, as just another part of life. Unlike most black comedies, Cooking with Elvis leaves you feeling great.
On paper, Cooking With Elvis doesn’t sound full of spring cheer. After all, it’s a play about a family of confused Geordies split by domestic abuse, eating disorders, drink problems and the trauma of a father paralysed and brain damaged from a road accident. But, hey, we haven’t got onto the Elvis hits yet. When the chips are down, you can do a lot worse than a hunkahunka bit of Burning Love or a round of Suspicious Minds like this, and those uplifting songs and more are expertly revived here. It’s an unusual collage but this is a smart black comedy, full of wry humour about life browsing the cheap cake aisle, pulled off without ever being patronising, predictable or sentimental. There is certainly more to this than one of those isn’t-life-in-the-north- rubbish-but-we-get-through -it-all-because-we’re-able-to-laugh-at-ourselves dramas.
Mario Kombou, a pro of an Elvis impersonator, is excellent as the Dad in a wheelchair, unable to intervene as his wife invites another man
to live in their home. He doesn’t just shake with convulsions, his musical flashbacks to a past life as a singer also exercise the hips as he leaps from his seat, flips off his goggly sunglasses and hollers Viva Las Vegas. This isn’t just karaoke stuff and Kombou proves it with some sturdy monologues. In between the flashes of gold-trimmed jumpsuits, Melanie Dagg and Catherine Nix-Collins (Mam and daughter Jill) bounce off each as they argue over dufus boyfriend Stuart (William Reay). Nix-Collins scrunches her face in a million different directions, while ploughing through a tuck shop of puddings: not a bad feat. There are moments which push the taste test, a couple of scenes that justify the parental guidance, but don’t be put off. This a witty show which somehow melds adversity with celebration and a bit of classic Presley showmanship. You’ll leave the building more than satisfied.
COOKING WITH ELVIS may have started life off as a radio play, but this latest theatre production has proved a phenomenal comic hit, effortlessly balancing dark intelligence with relentless piercing humour. Lee Hall (‘Billy Elliot’, ‘The Pitmen Painters’) has produced another dazzling comedy which sees respected impersonator, Mario Kombou playing a crowd-pleasing Elvis and has the audience roaring approval, bringing each act to a climax with surreal gags and verbal one-liners. Set in the north-east of England, Mam has been dealt a seemingly insufferable blow, when her big, bold husband – an enthusiastic Elvis impersonator – is left in a vegetative state after a disastrous motor accident, forcing him into a wheelchair, merely an observer to the lives in front of him. But when Dad is left on his own, Elvis
comes to life and he throws off his blanket to reveal himself in his Elvis persona – bright white jump suits, heavy on diamante – to perform a belting, rousing classic appropriate to the current state of the story. Meanwhile, Mam
(Melanie Dagg) is busy with the bottle and soon finds a sexy distraction in the form of cake factory-supervisor, the young and hunky Stuart.
As familial tensions grow tighter, Cooking With Elvis combines outrageously absurd scenes with simultaneously sensitive character sketches, with naked flesh and bulimic tendencies providing alternative cries for help, which sound incredibly dark but are actually very funny. Director, John Plews keeps the action fresh and brisk with some outstanding performances including Melanie Dagg as skeletal yet sexy, Mam, William Reay as expressive, confident, Stuart and Catherine Nix-Collins as a feisty, overweight teenager. The background soundtrack of Elvis songs is occasionally overpowering, but the full throated Mario Kombou as Dad has enough power to pull it off, with a magnificent, heartfelt performance which does Gracelands proud. The effects were visual perfection with sexual and emotional hilarity rife, ensuring this solidly mounted production is still the best gig in town.
When asked to review this performance I was overjoyed to see that one of the actors was Mario Kombou who performed the lead in Jailhouse Rock back in 2004 where I was working as a member of Front of House staff. He has been performing his tribute to Elvis for fifteen years and is one of the top ten tribute artists in the world- and this was certainly apparent during his 18 month stint in Jailhouse Rock just as it is ‘Upstairs at the Gatehouse’ in Lee Halls play Cooking with Elvis. Mario shares this role with Fisher Stevens who I did not watch, but knowing the consistent high quality of actors who perform at the ‘Gatehouse’ I would be surprised if he were a disappointment.
Cooking with Elvis is a black comedy by Lee Hall (who also wrote the screenplay of the film Billy Elliot). Mam and Dad live together in Newcastle with their 14 year old daughter Jill, sounds wholesome? It’s not. Dad was in an accident two years ago which left him paralysed in a wheelchair, or as Mam likes to call him ‘a cabbage’. Both Jill and Mam have dealt with this in an obsessive manor- Mam on the booze, and Lisa on the food. When Mam meets Stuart (who’s not the brightest bulb in the box) and moves him into the family home, this causes chaos and disruption- even for the family tortoise.
Mams been sexually frustrated since Dad’s been in a wheelchair and Stuart seems to be the perfect man for this problem- simple and young. No baggage, no complications. Melanie Dagg plays the character of Mam with harshness. She was fed up with the man she married and now because of his ‘situation’ she’s trapped with him forever. There is only one scene in the show where I feel this hardened barrier is broken down between Mam and Dad and in this short tender moment we can see so much past the wall that she has built up around her. For me, Stuart had to be the most comedic character. Having no personal attachment towards Dad he is in the simplest position… yet he seems to do everything he can to make it the hardest. A 26 year old going through some kind of identity/sexual/emotional crisis gives a lot of room for comedy and William Reay uses this opportunity to the max.
Daughter Jill is the narrator of the story. She announces each scene in what at first seemed to be a Brechtian manner yet later just seemed like a dig that the playwright is making towards conventional play formats. She is: lost; confused; caring; and as her mother repeatedly points out- fat. We see her going through typical emotions that any 14 year old girl would go through, but with the added pressure of pretty much being the sole carer of her father (as her mother gives little or no interest). This heightens all her teenage emotions. What we are left with is a girl who has grown up too quickly- yet is still very much just a girl. She loves her dad so much and although she was at first embarrassed when he became an Elvis impersonator she now embraces it as she knows that’s what makes her father most happy, and that is what she wants to continue to do.
All the emotion, obsession and commotion are mixed together with random speeches and songs by Dad- as Elvis. All the speeches are either based on his own words or state facts about Elvis and are put together is such an incredible way that you really wonder if it could all be true… showing not only the absurdity of the family situation we are seeing, but of Elvis himself, and of all human consciousness. The play has a slow start where we are introduced to the characters and their lifestyle but the second act is one of the best pieces of comedy I have seen in a long while, with some of the funniest one liners I have ever heard on stage. Being my local pub theatre I have seen numerous shows at ‘The Gatehouse’ and it is the first time that I have seen so many props on such a small stage! Food and drink pop up (and dominate) every scene of the play and how the actors cope with eating and drinking throughout the performance without the desperate need for the loo (or showing it) is incredible. Designer Gemma Harris has created a realistic set of the family home and the action moves comfortably through living room, kitchen and bedroom as we follow this story of unusual family life.
Once again Ovation has produced a play with music, comedy and tragedy brought together by a cast of talented actors.