EDINBURGH FESTIVAL '98: Theatre: Food, laborious food is hard to swallow

GARGANTUA THE UNDERBELLY CENTRAL LIBRARY

THE EDINBURGH company Grid Iron scored a huge hit at last year's Fringe by staging an adaptation of Angela Carter's short story The Bloody Chamber in the city vaults. Having established themselves as responsibly minded practitioners of site-specific theatre, this time round they have been allowed into vaults beneath the magnificent Central Library that have remained disused for the last 10 years.

The company must have patted itself on the back for having secured an architectural underbelly in which to conduct its ambitious exploration of bodily functions.

Among the copious literary quotes in the programme - a sprinkling of Claude Levi-Strauss, a dash of Brillat-Savarin - the deviser of the show, Ben Harrison, acknowledges the influence of Rabelais's novels Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532-1534), with their insatiable giants, for whom there is no punishment for indulgence.

One of the best dramatic dishes served up during the course of this 90- minute promenade is the tale of Gargantua's unnatural birth (via an ear) and piggy childhood. But elsewhere the emphasis is on capturing the spirit of the guilt-free guzzle, as a means of countering Scotland's "stern Calvinist inheritance".

The starter, in which three clowns in grey tunics suggest a miserable clockwork office existence through perfectly executed mime, is promising, with more than a flavour of Alice in Wonderland. With the arrival of the weekend, they leap to their feet and head off through the dank, but not malodorous, passageways into an imaginary restaurant where an Italian chef is cooking up an invisible meal.

It is at this point that a whiff of slightly nauseating self-indulgence begins to permeate proceedings: with an extended sequence of foodie talk (gobbledegook exclamations such as "Ex-boyfriend?" "Focaccia!"), polished off by some lavishly detailed sexual intercourse between a couple sitting at a table (an oyster is "swollen, palpably indecent").

You might think that this carefully planned walkabout to strains of violin and piano would get the audience stuck in more than the average piece of dramatic spoonfeeding, but the experience is rather like watching a TV cookery programme, and having to endure other people's simulated groans of pleasure.

The decor is beautiful - the giant watermelon couches, or the fruit-strewn altar. The four actors (Melanie Bradley, Iona Carbarns, Tony Delicata and Alan McPherson) are energetic, engaging even - but have to get their mouths round a half-baked script. Too many experiences of food (Granny's onion soup, John Wayne Bobbit's blood sausage, samosas that a boyfriend never came back to eat) end up spoiling this candlelit evening.

Dominic Cavendish

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