You’ve Burnt the Parsnips
Pembroke New Cellars, 9.30pm, until Sat 19th Nov
Following the signs and a trail of parsnips, a small yet highly privileged audience of no more than fifteen braved the cold winter’s night to accept our cordial invitation to a dinner party. Taking our seats in the intimate setting of Pembroke New Cellars, music such as Springsteen’s “Baby We Were Born To Run” made us feel as if we too were guests; the laughter even began before the play, as some precariously arranged seating saw one audience member ending up floor-bound, with legs waving in the air. The scene was well and truly set for what was advertised as ‘an original one-act comedy.’
And original it was. From the moment we met the sickeningly gaudy, insufferable snob Susan (Bella Plumptre) panicking over preparations for her younger brother David’s (Michael Cotton) twenty-fifth birthday party and witnessed her hilariously blatant bullying of her resigned and oppressed husband Simon (Freddie Tapner), it became clear that over-exaggeration, witty word-play and deliberately unsubtle metatheatre were to dominate the next forty-five minutes. In the doomed dinner party that follows, domestic tensions are brilliantly exposed. Susan cannot stand her common sister Brenda (Freddie Poulton) but can’t keep her hands (or legs, or tongue) off Brenda’s husband Mark (Paddy Howell-Day) in their unashamedly explicit affair. She also extends her overbearing presence to cosseting David, whose excellently timed entrance provoked one of the longest instances of sustained audience laughter due to his ridiculous appearance in a Christmas jumper, shorts, childish plasters and (I hope) deliberately ‘curtain’ haircut. We watch as each character snaps, pushed over the edge by their family members, with amusing consequences.
Anyone familiar with writer Matt Pullen’s previous comedy won’t be surprised to hear that puns peppered his ingeniously witty script and went down a treat with the audience. Metahumour pervades the play’s entirety and such self-consciousness worked excellently in combination with the actors’ interaction with the audience as they frequently gestured towards it, purposefully and awkwardly pausing for too long in outlandish poses as if to egg on the audience’s response. We couldn’t help but lap all this up, especially with Bella Plumptre’s brilliant comic facial expressions and over-performed gestures of sly winking to the audience at the overtly sexualised moments, one of which involved exploiting the phallic potential to a bottle of champagne, or rather what was labelled ‘human merry juice’.
One of the things which made the performance such a success was the fantastic attention to detail, (and then the attention paid to this attention – for example, ‘this food tastes like cardboard.’) for which credit must go to the production team. The surplus of cardboard props, which are very well utilised, only served to make Susan’s extreme fuss over a smashed glass even funnier and timings for sound effects were nearly always perfect. When they weren’t, it was not a problem. Freddie Tapner’s skill meant he could draw attention to the fact the vase, which according to the sound effects had just smashed, was still sitting on the table, in accordance with the nature of the play and the audience revelled in what then became meta-meta-theatre.
From voiceover’s informing us that ‘this is’ or ‘is not foreboding’, the amusing sound effects, for instance of sound of tumbleweed emphasising the moments of awkwardness, and the sudden yet effective shifts in lighting and bursts on music to accompany crazy dancing and visions of the future, the self-referential dynamics of the play were highly successful. The play seemed to know its weaknesses but embrace their comedic potential, thus converting them into anything but a weakness.
Leaping from absurdity to absurdity, from tin-foil bra stuffing to murder by Estonian champagne and highly realistic sacks of pepper, the inevitable trauma of the dinner party does not prevent the audience being constantly surprised and above all, highly entertained at the ludicrous performance. The combination of a well-assembled and talented cast with a meticulously executed script meant that the audience were left as jubilant as a finally-liberated Simon.