The National Youth Theatre’s summer season is certainly coming to a boiling point with their latest production of a new play by the Finborough Theatre’s writer in residence, James Graham. Relish is a look at real-life tale of Britain’s first ever ‘celebrity chef’ Alexis Soyer. Before television became the ideal place to send chefs of our time to stardom such as Jamie Oliver and Gordan Ramsey - Alexis Soyer found his fame through his French cooking in the Victorian era where passion for his food saw him soar to unexpected heights.
As the Artistic Director of NYT, Paul Roseby tackles Relish with a delightful outcome that will leave your stomach churning for more and the taste of cookery for the masses fresh on the mind. It’s a bold tale to undertake, but Graham has generously sprinkled the text with humorous characters and dialogue that give Roseby plenty of room to bring to life Victorian cookery. As seen in other NYT work this season and most notable in their recent hive of activity in S’warm the heart of Relish lies in the fine execution of ensemble work.
A cast of 41 young actors and musicians command the doubled sided stage built within the The Tramshed – a wonderful setting for Relish with titled walls and wooden rafters above. Roseby’s direction in the ensemble see’s the cast making full use of every kitchen utensils known to man, as they beat out the sounds of the French Revolution. In a true imaginative mind state we see bread batons used as guns and whisks coupled with sieves connected to form a whole array of costumes that even Vivienne Westwood would struggle to conjure up.
Working with the steel structure of James Button’s design the performance takes place across a main stage overlooked by a wrap-around walkway complete with glorifying lift (used wonderfully to show Soyer rising to fame). Button’s design reflects the industrial movements taking place in the Victorian era and coupled with the French stylistic romanticism in Michael Livermore’s sound design and Philip Sheppards music the atmosphere is firmly placed.
Graham’s text captures the creative flare that Alexis Soyer himself contained in his inventions to help develop cookery for the masses. By placing the character of Soyer along with notable figures of the time such as Charles Dickens, Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole who all seem caricatures of their own identities only goes to further the notion of our ‘lost hero’, the first British celebrity chef. Yet as Graham notes, how can food survive history, if it is to be digested? How indeed can a figure be noted in history when the very thing he was famous for ceases to exists after a few mouthfuls… a poignant reminder at how our lives can pass us by so quickly leaving little behind.
Looking beyond the creative team, Relish is boiling over with talent which under the direction of NYT is being nurtured with wonderful outcomes. James Walker is outstanding as the central character of Relish, and is every bit believable as the French chef. Graham’s text flows wondrously from Walker and considerable praise should be given to the level of discipline he shows in his French accent throughout the 2 hour long production. As Soyer’s wife Emma, Hannah Morrish is lovably innocent and when playing opposite Walker reveals a truthful impression of a hope and love within her character.
There are notable performances from cockney-London lad Eddie played by Joe Cole, Tamsin Dowsett who gives Florence Nighingale a comical don’t-give-a-f**k attitude and Daniella Isaacs whose portrayal of Young Victoria is wonderful. Yet with such a vast and strong ensemble cast it is all 41 cast members who deserve the praise in Relish. It is a fine achievement to perform in a lengthy performance, and whilst some editing is needed in the second half, the young ensemble deliver a professional standard of performance throughout.
Relish is a delight of a night out and you’d be wrong to think that it was just another youth theatre production – it is far more. The National Youth Theatre repeatedly proves that strong and often groundbreaking theatre doesn’t always sit with those experienced actors, but can be found at the very rawest of forms: the actors of tomorrow.
Relish is performing at The Tramshed until 18th September. To find out more information and to book tickets, see the NYT’s Relish webpage.