US playwright Mary Laws’s Blueberry Toast is a stylised, parodic version of all those tense-family-drama plays that takes frustrated suburban housewife to Tarantino-esque, cartoonishly violent ends.
Director Steve Marmion offers a take that sits somewhere between Fifties pastel pastiche and the present day – slightly uneasily, it turns out.
A passive-aggressive stand-off develops between Barb – a perma-smiling Gala Gordon – and Walt (Gareth David-Lloyd doing his best Chris Pratt, American buffoon impression). He’s refusing to eat the blueberry toast she’s made him. But it’s really not about the toast.
They’re the pretty picture of apple-pie America – all false brightness, every utterance ending in “dear”. Expect he’s a very bad apple, rotten to the core. An avowed anti-feminist, he’s having a poorly concealed affair, and gaslights Barb, calling her stupid and inferior. Soon, she finds her fingers twitching towards the knife block.
As tension mounts, their two children – played by adult actors, Matt Barkley and Adrianna Bertola – burst in, often at excruciatingly mis-judged moments. They’re putting on a play, and pop down to perform skits and songs and dances, interruptions add a further level of surreal, meta-knowingness. (Bertola is astonishing: deliberately stagey yet also convincingly a child, she also brings some much-needed vulnerability to proceedings.)
The production is slick, glossy and funny. The set looks perfect – even better when blood starts spattering its pristine surfaces – and Mic Pool’s sound design is comically foreboding, the rejected toast booming as hits the bin.
But this approach means that these characters are as bright but also rigid and hollow as moulded Formica. When you’re in the realm of cartoon villains, you only have cartoon emotional engagement. And by focusing so resolutely on surfaces, Marmion’s production is also at times guilty of having its cake and eating it. In Gordon’s appealing but pretty vacant performance, Barb poses and bends as if for men’s pleasure, all doll-like. She actually gets turned on when Walt says he wanted to shoot her on their wedding day, and this isn’t problematised, it’s played straight. Ultimately, Barb – and her daughter – are victims, while men appear to hold their place at the head of the table.
Is a glib, arch staging enough to carry all this? The gaze can feel pretty male – with “oh, but she wreaks bloody revenge” as waving justification. This surely isn’t the intention of Laws’s play (and it was Gordon herself who brought it to the Soho), but what its point actually is, isn’t massively clear.
Is it that men are bad to women, gender relations are as bad as they were in the Fifties, and always will be? If so, I’m not sure it’s one we desperately need to hear – tense, comic, and stylish as this production often is.
Until 30 June. Tickets: 020 7478 0100; sohotheatre.com