After their enormous success with The Last Lunch at the Brighton Fringe in 2012 and 2013, Something Underground have revived this show, yet again, with a brand new cast. Interestingly for a play focused around the treatment and butchering of livestock, its performance space is the Friends’ (Quakers’) Meeting House. Looking through the programme and knowing the show’s success in recent years, I was optimistic, if a little cautious at the writer/director/actor combination.
The Last Lunch takes the apparently ‘simple’ idea that if we consume something, its past and its story becomes part of ours and, according to the show’s blurb, if that past contains brutality our human nature absorbs and exacerbates it. Simple? Not particularly, but it makes for an interesting moral dilemma: in an age when we consume everything at speed and in large quantities, how long before our bodies start producing that which is consumable?
Jonathan Brown is the play’s writer and director, as well as playing the part of disgruntled butcher and grandfather Albert. This combination always worries me, as very often if the writer of the show is also the director AND a leading role, a lot of performance values can slip between the cracks – as, unfortunately, seems to have occurred with The Last Lunch. Brown himself comments in the director’s note that the script is “somewhat complex”, which is quite a significant understatement. The opening few scenes in which several characters’ conversations occur simultaneously in one room is brilliant. The dialogue and pacing is funny, the delivery is spot-on and I quickly saw why Brown has been so celebrated as a writer: these scenes are witty and greatly entertaining.
However, as soon as the show’s narrative storyline begins to take shape, I quickly found myself longing for the previous scenes. After a monologue about an LSD-fueled spiritual encounter with a bull, performed with uncertainty and many awkward line-slips by Jack Spooner, the show begins to unravel somewhat. The cast, for the most part, give very accomplished performances: Emily Jayne as teenage tearaway Hannah and Gordon Winter as the crotchety farmer Pete are consistently brilliant. Yet the main issue I have with this production is that it doesn’t quite know the point it is trying to make and, more disruptively, neither do its actors. The humour of the piece is brilliant and fast-paced, but the plot seems to get constantly distracted by another issue it wants to address, and veers off on a tangent. Unfortunately this leaves the audience unsure as to whether they are expected to find the ritual sacrifice, incest and trans-species pregnancy hilarious or disturbing. The majority of the audience in the final scenes titter nervously, and I left questioning my neighbours as to whether or not I had missed something.
The Last Lunch is playing at the Friends’ Meeting House until 30 May as part of the Brighton Fringe. For more information and tickets, see the Brighton Fringe website.