Pros: Stellar writing & music that allows the cast to explore a broad emotional range.
Cons: The auditorium has very beautiful chairs. Very uncomfortable, beautiful chairs.
When you’re planning to trek across London from Wapping to Wandsworth for a show, it better be a damn good show. A Catered Affair is just that. From my admittedly rather swift glance at the promotional material I had the impression this would be a frothy little musical about a young girl dealing with her overbearing mother as she plans to get married. The truth is far more complex and emotionally resonant.
In the 1950s a Bronx family loses their firstborn son to war. Unfolding finally from her favoured brother’s long shadow, daughter Janey Hurley (Aimee Gray) decides to propose to her boyfriend Ralph Halloran (Calum Melville) and start a new life with him. They decide to get married very quickly so they can take advantage of an opportunity to go on a cross-country driving honeymoon. The neighbours all assume this haste is because Janey is pregnant, whilst Janey’s and Ralph’s relatives are in uproar because of the perceived slight of only inviting immediate family. The stage is set then for all the social obligations, family pressures and financial strains that are the seedy underbelly of every wedding to come roaring forth.
Janey Hurley is a pragmatic heroine whose main desire out of marriage is more affection than she has witnessed between her parents. Yet there is a stronger bond between them than she perhaps realizes, as her father Tom (Howard Samuels) expresses his devotion to his wife despite difficult circumstances in his powerful second act ballad I Stayed. The emotional heart of the piece is Janey’s mother Aggie (Maggie Robson). Robson’s Aggie is stunning in her direct emotional honesty as she confronts a sudden turning point in her life, reflecting among other things on how her relationship with her son always overshadowed that with her daughter. David Anthony as the sparkling ‘confirmed bachelor’ Uncle Winston has some of the best songs in the piece, including the biting, Immediate Family, about how you can choose your friends but you’re stuck with your relatives for better or worse, and the short but sweetly poignant Coney Island. The interplay between Janey’s family and Ralph’s parents (Dudley Rodgers and Judith Street) as they meet for the first time is delicious. In a variety of smaller parts, Bryony Growdon and Ellen Verenieks stand out for their abilities to add emotion to a scene even when present only briefly.
The shadow hanging over the piece is of course Janey’s deceased brother. There is an astonishingly touching moment when parents Aggie and Tom are presented with their son’s coffin flag, death certificate, and medals by an Army sergeant. Though I have no particular affinity with patriotic displays on a grand scale, the personal intimacy of this scene was incredibly affecting, making me reflect on my own grandfather’s record of military service and how lucky I was to know him, when like every soldier he too could have been killed in action. I don’t believe I was the only person holding back tears at that point.
The London Theatre Workshop (above the marvellously named Eel Brook pub) is a terrifically intimate space, a challenge that designer Edward Iliffe and director Ray Rackham approach boldly. On arrival the audience walks across the stage from the rear to get to their seats, right through the gossiping neighbours and past the sleeping Ralph. Throughout the show this intimacy makes the emotive power of the piece all the more potent. I highly recommend a trip down to London Theatre Workshop. A Catered Affair is an experience well worth it.
Director: Ray Rackham
Musical Director: David Keefe
Writer: Harvey Fierstein
Music & Lyrics: John Bucchino
Set Design: Edward Iliffe
Booking Until: 20 June 2014
Booking Link: http://londontheatreworkshop.co.uk/aca/