We all remember different things about our grandmothers: the smell of a particular perfume, the taste of a particularly revered childhood dish, the sound of a particularly soft voice reading bedtime stories. Yet while the grandmother/grandchild connection is undoubtedly a special one, it's not often talked about, much less given a thorough, in-depth exploration in its own piece of theatre.
Australian cabaret theatre performer Paul Capsis goes beyond traditional storytelling when giving audiences an insight into his own relationship with his grandmother in Griffin Theatre's Angela's Kitchen. Donning his grandmother's apron, shoes, and dress, Capsis uses both literal and metaphorical postcards to paint us a portrait of life from the small island of Malta to the backstreets of inner-city Sydney, describing his grandmother's childhood, marriage, migration to Australia and eventual rise as matriarch of a 30-plus family. It's as much an intimate portrayal of grandmotherly love as it is an exploration of a small boy coming to terms with cultural identity and the pitfalls of family life.
Capsis re-enacts his childhood memories around his grandparents' kitchen table with warmth and good humour. At an age when it was generally considered weird to be hanging out with one's own granny, Capsis resists taunts from friends and siblings to become his grandmother's companion, accompanying her on work shifts cleaning the Surry Hills post office and to her weekly Bingo nights.
Through these stories, Capsis reveals himself a member of a family much like any other - loud, crude, annoying, rueful, loving, compassionate. Whatever character Capsis is bringing to life at any one time, be it his five-year-old self, his indifferent mother, his loud, imposing grandfather or his chain-smoking aunt, it's always a pleasure to watch, carefully re-constructed on the page by Capsis's co-writer Hilary Bell and directed onstage by Julian Meyrick.
The set provides a warm, inviting space in which we are free to imagine the scenes he describes: a Maltese thoroughfare, his grandparents' backyard, a hospital room, a war-torn village, a bomb raid shelter, and, yes, Angela's kitchen, filled with tchotchkes that remind her of home. A large projector displays old family photos as Capsis describes members of his family to the audience with the conviction and passion of someone who is proud of who he is and where he comes from. Angela's Kitchen is Capsis's ode to a woman he loved very much; it is the performer opening the door to his past, and inviting all of us in.
This review originally appeared in Time Out Sydney, written for the premiere season of Angela's Kitchen.
Read Paul Capsis' interview with Time Out from earlier this year.