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Biscuits for Breakfast at Hampstead Theatre Downstairs review: grim and remorseless

Ben Castle-Gibb and Boadicea Ricketts in Biscuits for Breakfast (Alessandro Castellani)
Ben Castle-Gibb and Boadicea Ricketts in Biscuits for Breakfast (Alessandro Castellani)

Nobody expects a play about food poverty to be a barrel of laughs. But after a promising beginning, Gareth Farr’s downbeat love story between two impoverished young people in Cornwall settles into a grim, remorseless rhythm.

Would-be chef “normal Paul” (Ben Castle-Gibb) initially woos tough, gorgeous Joanne (Boadicea Ricketts) – who grew up in care and works as a hotel cleaner – through food. But what happens when they suddenly can’t afford to eat? We find out, over 100 interval-less and increasingly repetitive minutes.

Farr, an actor as well as a writer, has a good ear for idiomatic, incidental dialogue, but errs towards bathos when things get serious. His script falls into the worst trap of the two-handed relationship drama, with the characters endlessly explaining their shared situation to each other.

Castle-Gibb does well in a role that’s difficult and unsympathetic, for reasons we’ll get into. Ricketts gives a terrific, mascara-streaked display of tempered fury but the play hands her all the glories on a plate. Director Tessa Walker often strands the performers at opposite ends of the thin, sandy strip of Cecilia Carey’s basic traverse stage set, the audience swiveling their heads back and forth as if watching beach volleyball. The only props – a table, two chairs, a cassette deck – are moved back and forth with suppressed violence.

 (Alessandro Castellani)
(Alessandro Castellani)

Actually, I should qualify what I said about the beginning. The very first scene, with Paul listening to taped childhood conversations with his drunk, maudlin, now-dead fisherman dad, is excruciating. Things pick up when he and Joanne begin their cautious dance towards each other. Poverty accelerates intimacy – when both lose their jobs she moves into his borrowed flat – but also resentment. Joanne gets a job in the local garlic bread factory, even though the racist staff spit at her. Paul is immobilised by pride and by his dad’s phantom hopes.

Once established, this dynamic plays out over and over. Joanne is proactive or at least pragmatic. Paul is dictatorial but trapped by his dad’s exhortation to “dream big” and “be better”. Apparently, the father was an active character in the play in earlier drafts. Dead and absent, he’s still a drag on the drama.

Paul’s dialogue grows exponentially full of metaphors about being caught in a tightening net, subject to depression that comes and goes like a tide or stuck in a pressure cooker. Joanne’s frustration builds until incandescent anger is all she can express.

Farr’s play is timely and he makes salient points, but he can’t help underlining, again and again, things that could be implied and inferred. A fight about Joanne visiting a food bank seems to go on forever until she loudly explains that she and Paul “are the poor f***ers with nothing”, along with teachers and nurses.

“Exhausted now,” says Joanne towards the end of their final, lengthy argument. “Bit cheesy,” says Paul, about some of her ripostes. Regretfully, I agreed with both sentiments.

Hampstead Theatre Downstairs, to 10 June; hampsteadtheatre.com