Creating good improv theatre is much like cooking. Even the dishes that have an air of mindless slap dashery still require a subtle balance of method, technique and flavour to create a fully rounded, complete experience.
The brainchild of Kate Barnes, a stalwart of Auckland’s hospitality sector and Q Theatre, the Kitchen Table Sessions was touted as a talk show experience where she was joined by a rotating cast of special guests discussing their favourite dishes before serving them up to the audience. We were lucky enough to have Lips, who arranged and performed the music for the Kiwiana musical Daffodils, Comedian Pax Assadi and David Farrier creator of the excellent Dark Tourist series and Tickled Documentary.
It sounded like an excellent idea. Barnes was attempting to tap into the universal sense of community and humanity unique to sitting around a kitchen table chatting over a shared plate. She had rallied people who have genuinely interesting life experiences. All the ingredients were there for a full-bodied discussion about food and the role it plays in developing identities and memories.
However, the first thirty minutes fell flatter than a souffle as Barnes herself appeared to fall prey to under-workshopped improv with her guests. This was particularly evident with her first guest Lips. Although Steph Brown and Fen Ikner had a cute story about falling in love in New York and going to Ikner’s home state fair, Barnes failed to draw out from the duo why the admittedly delicious cornbread bore such relevance to them. Or if they did, we missed it because everyone onstage appeared to be un-miced, making Lips in particular difficult to hear. While there was one screen on stage right, meaning it was difficult for us to see from the left-hand side. That such fundamental elements of stage production were scrimped upon ultimately proved detrimental to the performance.
On the plus side, Lips gave two solid performances throughout the evening. The first was a spoken-word number about a break up that wouldn’t have been out of place in Greenwich Village, before a sweetly wistful cover of Darling I’ll Say Goodbye, which they reworked for the aforementioned Daffodils.
Thankfully, Barnes got into her stride with Pax Assadi and David Farrier, structuring her questions in a way that was conversational but on topic. Assadi’s Persian style omelette was a way of combining his three cultures, while Farrier’s love of Hawaiian pizza (however incorrect) still lent itself to an amusing anecdote that linked the abomination – I mean dish- to a stakeout during the filming of Tickled. Assadi and Farrier seemed more comfortable speaking in front of an audience, projecting their voices and stories clearly and with humour. As everyone relaxed, the audience began to good-naturedly heckle the performers, much like you would if you were sitting around having a yarn. As a whole, it became easier to see the intent and potential of the Kitchen Table premise.
The night ended with Barne’s Aunt Olive’s fudge. Unfortunately, we were not given an explanation as to the significance of this fudge or why it was special to Barnes. It was an opportunity lost to come full circle and get some insight into Barne’s own story. But, biting into it, I was transported back to my Grandmother’s living room because it was the exact same recipe that she would present with a cup of tea every time I came to visit and we would while away the hours discussing writing, current events and politics. I hadn’t tasted it in over a decade and it was a bittersweet moment that highlighted the power of the Kitchen Tales concept.
Food is transporting, it does tie to evocative memories of people and places and experiences. While a mixed bag that could have done with some more care and planning, the Kitchen Table Session managed at times to capture some of that power.