Meat’s intention is writ large by two very real looking butchered carcasses hung on the set’s back wall. No wet liberal hand-wringing or snowflake safe spaces here, then? A no holds barred, explicit and bloody dissection of consent and sexual assault on the cards? Not quite. Like a tasting menu, there are some incredibly powerful moments in Gillian Greer’s new play, but the overall effect is somewhat mixed.
The menu analogy is apt because Greer writes enthusiastically about food throughout. She discusses foie gras, oysters, bacon, ice cream, honey and other tantalising morsels in a series of diverting speeches. If a cheeky Nandos is your idea of a treat, this might not be the show for you. The setting is a high-end carnivore’s dream of a restaurant but only nominally. A busy kitchen and other customers are mentioned, but there is no real evidence of either. This leaves us in a kind of limbo. Glass after glass of wine is consumed, time is needlessly fractured and characters are forced to switch between sober and drunk and attracted to and repulsed by each other at the whim of Greer’s text. There is confusion about the tone of it all too. Heartfelt intimate confessions and deadly serious accusations fight for attention amongst satirical swipes at the restaurant trade, unreconstructed vegan bashing gags and, at one point, adolescent food fighting. I was too discombobulated to relax, let alone raise a laugh.
The three cast members give uniformly strong performances though which is welcome as there is nowhere to hide in Theatre 503’s intimate space. As protagonist Max, an ambitious young woman making the transition from blogger to ‘real’ writer by sharing her trauma, India Mullen is utterly compelling. The damage simmering under the surface is palpable and, in an image that stays with you, her desire to forget it all and return to child-like innocence is wonderfully realised towards the end of the play. Sean Fox is totally believable as Ronan, a laddish man-boy of a celebrity chef faced with growing up quickly. As colleague Jo, Elinor Lawless has perhaps the hardest job of the three. Fortunately, she doesn’t miss a beat as her character softens from ice maiden restaurant manager to empathetic mother hen over a few short scenes.
The direction from Lucy Jane Atkinson feels constrained by the fact the action is largely set around a single dinner table. Perhaps in an attempt to overcome the limitations of designer Rachel Stone’s attractive but safe naturalistic choices, scene transitions involve the kind of physical theatre ‘bits’ that have become ubiquitous in new plays these days. Some work but a few too many feel a little silly. Smearing food on the walls anyone? Me neither.
Meat, however, is definitely worth celebrating as it brings a complicated and emotionally charged subject to the stage in a sensitive and accessible manner. To return to the tasting menu analogy, the courses that feel most theatrically nourishing and important skip the food and the jokes to focus on the psychology of acceptance and recovery. In a week that sees #metoo filling headlines again, the play’s overall message that healing begins with believing victims could not feel more timely.
Written by: Gillian Greer
Directed by: Lucy Jane Atkinson
Produced by: Emily Carewe & 45North
Booking until: 14 March 2020
Booking link: https://theatre503.com/whats-on/meat/