views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Humble Pie
The Hen and Chickens
3rd August 2015


Publicity image for Humble Pie

Photography provided by Cavaliers Theatre

When you walk into a theatre and notice that the front row is covered in plastic wrap, you should really listen to those inner alarm bells going off. I managed to sit though Jamie Lloyd's Richard III in stage seating without getting a single drop of blood on me. I wasn't so lucky in Humble Pie - a piece of political theatre set in a meat factory. Strictly, it's not immersive - you won't be a part of the show. However, a part of the show may end up on you, so do dress appropriately. Let my splattered clothes be your warning.

Sir Loin is dead, long live his irritating children. Sophie (Runa May) and Jacob (Rory Thomas-Ford) have inherited a pie-making company and are about to get an education into what exactly goes on in there. Vivacious and cruel CEO Jo Jo (Leah Kirby), aided by yes-women Natasha (Louise Nicholls) and Victoria (Beth Johnston) show the little Loins how pies are made, much to the distress of long-suffering animal welfare officer, Edith (Alice Wolff-Whitehouse). Let's just say not everything about the Humble Pies factory is kosher.

This hour-long show is a devised piece, and you only have to look at the cast list to realise just how many cooks have been involved in making this concoction. There are a lot of ingredients: straight theatre, musical theatre, physical theatre, clowning, innuendo and gross out humour. At the very core is a strong animal activism message, which should be educational and instead veers dangerously into propaganda territory, alienating the very people it should be winning over. You know that advert if Carling made...? They'd be...? Well, if an extreme animal rights group (naming no names) made theatre, it would be like this. A deliberately shocking piece of footage put together by Grace Battram was robbed of its power by technical difficulties, but arguably shouldn't have formed part of a piece of theatre in the first place. Although they'd argue different.

The company's take on Cell Block Tango is clever and gets their message across without being overly confrontational. They take a well known melody from Chicago and imbue it their views on animal welfare. The Barbershop Boys (Stefan Gackowski, Toby Underwood, George Eddy and Tim Keogh) are also not half-bad, and it's these musical numbers which add the most impact. Keogh's overly camp, hammy and creepy portrayal of the supervisor as he oversees a visit from three work experience schoolboys (Matt Trayler, Battram and Eddy) however just doesn't work for me and if I'm honest, made me feel a little nauseous. Again, probably their point exactly.

The company credits John Walton not only as their director but also mentor, and he has definitely managed to get something out of them, however he hasn't managed to link that something together in a cohesive way. The ensemble may have lots of different ideas - they're very recent graduates, all trying to get their voices heard - but as director, the buck stops with him when it comes to culling the bad, enhancing the good and making sure there's one clear vision. Many of the actors show real glimmers of potential, but you have to really look hard to notice, in the same way you have to look really hard in a pie for some kind of health benefit. By not taking control of the production, Walton's done them all a disservice.

Look, we're not without a heart. We've read Fast Food Nation and realise the rearing and slaughter of animals could be and should be much more humane. But we'd also argue it's a symptom of a greater ill rather than something that could be stopped by, say, banning pies. And it's here the show falls down - we're moderate and it still doesn't win us over. Militant vegetarians won't see what's wrong with this play, and militant meat eaters won't see what's right with it. It's very clear what the company have attempted to do, but they just haven't considered the importance of not just preaching to the converted, but also getting non-believers on board. If you can't win over brand new audiences, eventually the old ones will dry up.

Humble Pie ran from 3rd to 9th August 2015 at the Hen and Chickens, as part of the Camden Fringe.

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

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