‘Dan LeFranc’s emotional rollercoaster is brought to life with poignancy and panache’
Writer Dan LeFranc freely admits that The Big Meal, his entertaining drama that spans five generations of the same family, was somewhat inspired by the antics of his own. One must hope this confession is made in jest, as the trials and tribulations, festivities and farewells of the American family presented in Michael Boyd’s immersive adaptation are so emotionally draining as to leave one thoroughly exhausted as it reaches its thought-provoking conclusion.
Sam and Nicole meet in a typical suburban restaurant and their subsequent relationships, and those of their children and grandchildren, are shown in glimpses over the ensuing eighty years, all taking place in the same restaurant. The family deal with births, deaths, marriages and separations, all within the confines of an energetic 90 minutes. A cast of eight play Sam and Nicole, as well as other family members, throughout the various stages of their life. The different portrayals are seamlessly interwoven and entirely believable, thanks to the intelligent script and some commendably versatile acting, from Keith Bartlett and James Corrigan in particular. The passing of time is powerfully realised as one actor takes over from another, allows the character to develop, before passing it on again.
Refreshingly, the audience is not led carefully by the hand through these transitions, nor through the play’s intricacies in general; one is required to maintain concentration as characters are shifted between performers and as plot developments are hinted at with the slightest phrase. Implicity reigns; let attentiveness waver momentarily and confusion ensues. Occasionally this is intentional, however, and these are perhaps the production’s most powerful moments; when Jo Stone-Fewings’ Sam remarks that he and another should take a romantic mini-break, one is unsure whom he addresses, his wife or his potential lover.
Throughout, various family-related themes are given prominence. Our predisposition to only appreciate others when they’re gone, our tendency to isolate close family members, our ability to cope with loss and the unwavering solidarity of family: all are thoughtfully explored through the various experiences of individual characters. Most prominently of all perhaps, the universally feared fate of turning into one’s parents is skilfully examined and the use of dramatic irony in such situations is extremely effective.
Perhaps it is an inevitability of family dramas, but a flirtation with nihilism is annoyingly ever-present. Deaths are treated with more significance than any other event and, although the ritual of the departing character eating a last meal before he/she departs is commendably original, its repetitiveness begins to grind on one’s patience and the predicable regularity with which family members expire descends into dispassionate monotony. The cacophony of the chat-filled ensemble scenes could be another criticism, yet one feels this was intended to aggravate slightly anyway.
In truth, The Big Meal is a captivating piece of theatre. The events of one family’s story are brilliantly condensed into an impossibly short timeframe and a poignant chronicle of life, death, depression and love is masterfully presented.