views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Nathan & Ida's Hot Dog Stand
The Hen and Chickens
11th August 2018


Publicity photo for Crossing

Photography provided by Nathan & Ida

Ask anyone to write a comedy and there is a long list of safe options to choose from as your starting point - most people would go for the town or country they live in, maybe a part of their culture or identity, or some family matter that we can all relate to. Given that we're in the UK, a hot dog stand in Coney Island does not feature anywhere on that list - in fact, it borders on utter lunacy. I'd like to introduce you to two people who did not play it safe, and won with Nathan & Ida's Hot Dog Stand.

Behold Nathan Grassi and Ida Berglöw Kenneway, the minds behind this rising star of a show. Just looking at their CVs explains a lot - these two are educated and experienced, especially Berglöw Kenneway with her background in social theatre. Part of a critic's job is to look at the overall concept of a piece and wonder how much better it could have been. With this show, instead I'm in awe of how brilliantly executed the entire thing is, considering all the different ways it could have gone wrong - accents could have been hammy, historical references could have been inaccurate or even offensive and it all could easily have been shallow and irrelevant - the fact that it managed to avoid all these obvious pitfalls is testament to the intense character awareness that the two have. Instead, they transport us on a mesmerising tour of immigration-era New York, telling a believable story of going it alone and making a new life.

It is very fitting that Hot Dog Stand centres around a secret sauce, because there is absolutely a key ingredient in it that gels the whole thing together. It is one of those comedy shows that recognises the golden rule of engagement - which so many productions either don't get or arrogantly ignore - that audiences engage with people, not gags. It may contain gags, and those gags may be laughable in themselves. However, they are only ever there to complement deep, well-rounded, relatable protagonists. Grassi and Berglöw Kenneway create exactly that - they talk to each other as an irreverent elderly couple would after decades of marriage, reminiscing on all the best bits of their history with a generous dose of goofy humour.

Another real strength is that the surprises just keep coming - no one expects Ida to interrupt Nathan with a series of foghorn noises as he begins telling the story of his arrival in Manhattan docks, yet parp she does. That's only one example - it would be wrong of me to add any more spoilers. The show is delightfully fast-paced and manages to blend intimacy and purity with endless running around, dancing, miming and even puppetry. And as if perfectly reeling off hundreds of lines in one role wasn't impressive enough, the pair branch out and play others, as and when required, each with its own voice and personality.

This is just one of those gems of a performance that works on so many levels - possibly all of them. The characters are not just relatable but adorable, the actors are versatile, the personalities they portray fit together like jigsaw pieces. It seems obvious in hindsight that a hot dog stand in Coney Island is a great idea - it actually tells a familiar story of emigration to the New World, and it's a close-up story about the people who did it, not where it was or what it involved - but it takes a genius to know that beforehand. I would urge you to go and see two of them whilst you have the chance.

Nathan and Ida's Hot Dog Stand opened on 10th August and runs until 12th August 2018 at the Hen and Chickens, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Highbury and Islington (Victoria, Overground)

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