Being led through a dimly lit room to my Curzon-esque sofa seat felt like a long-overdue dream. My excitement at stepping foot in a real (not virtual!) theatre was only heightened by the extra wait time before the dress rehearsal of Half Baked. The producer, Olivia Wheeler, had informed me as I entered the The North Wall Arts Centre that, just an hour before, the laws regarding social distancing in theatres had changed, meaning that the whole play had to be reblocked. I was perfectly happy to wait around and build up my anticipation by reading the play’s programme.
Nina Jurković, the writer and director of the play, explains in the programme how the idea for Half Baked came about: it all started with a 3am phone note which read, ‘bakery gets cocaine delivery instead of flour.’ Whilst many, I’m sure, can relate to this momentary burst of middle-of-the-night inspiration, most would drop the idea with the sobering light of day. But Jurković decided to pursue her outlandish thought and the result, though tampered with by big, bad corona, finally came together as Half Baked, an all-female play which is being performed from Wednesday to Saturday of 4th week.
The play is set in the Bourne Bakery, where the owner, Hazel (Leah Aspden), bickers with Molly (Charlotte Wilson), her only employee, about the modern world of baked goods. Rooted firmly in her belief that flour is flour, and that oats have no business coming near her coffee, Hazel spends her days scrubbing chairs with shoe polish to try to convince her non-existent customers of the bakery’s popularity. Meanwhile, Molly pushes her towards new ingredients to drum up business, such as the “special flour” that their upstairs neighbour, Chris (Pip Lang), is always leaving around. The closest they get to customers are their model/wannabe-actor friend, Candy (Téa Chatila), Candy’s friend Vicki (Anna Coles), and Chris’ companion, Tina (Ava Balaji). The quaint little bakery, then, is certainly no place for bags full of cocaine, murder plots and explosions, but this is the direction in which the play quickly moves.
Without indulging in too many baking puns (the play pretty much had those covered), Half Baked could have done with a bit more time in the oven. I’m hoping that this was a case of not-so-great dress rehearsal, great show. Along with Covid restrictions, it didn’t help that the audience had to be ushered out of the theatre five minutes before the end of the show due to an unfortunately unavoidable late start. However, there was a certain awkwardness to the play that was hard to ignore. In some areas, this helped to enhance the atmosphere, such as during potential romance scenes between Hazel and Chris. But, in others, I felt unsure whether to laugh at the awkward faces and shuffling around or to feel sympathy for a cast that was still finding its feet. Similarly, the sudden shifts from intensity to calm (like when Chris goes from being threatened with murder to engaging in a drawn-out conversation with Hazel) made me feel more confused than amused. Indeed, the relationship between realism and comedy felt somewhat muddled throughout the play – are we meant to believe that Molly could mistake cocaine for flour and that Hazel could really think that “art flour” exists? Should we remain attached to the real or suspend our disbelief and indulge in the absurd?
Nevertheless, this play includes many good elements. Its plot is highly original, and an all-female play that isn’t just about how great women are and effing the patriarchy is refreshing (a female drug dealer in dungarees isn’t what I expected to see when I took my seat to watch the show). Anna Coles’ performance as Vicki, whose character most fully depended on a ‘dumb-blonde-actor-model’ stereotype, provided some nice comedic colour. Waving her Pret cup around and professing her love of independent cafes, she brought a burst of energy and humour to the banal bakery setting. There was also rarely a moment in which I was aware of the distancing requirements between actors, which is testament to the cast and crew’s impressive adaptability.
Though the tone and cohesion of the piece may require a little more polishing, the audience is plunged into a world which, whilst ostensibly mundane, is packed with intrigue. Near the end of the play, Hazel excitedly welcomes a ‘new era’, a ‘time to innovate, expand, experiment.’ Yes, it may be too soon to call, but as far as in-person theatre is concerned, it feels like we are moving towards a new era of performance, after over a year of theatres being as unfrequented as Bourne’s bakery. As for innovation and experimentation, the play certainly experiments, with its unconventional plot being cooked up and performed in these unconventional times. To what extent it succeeds in pulling this off, you can decide.
To check out the performance, buy a ticket here: www.thenorthwall.com/whats-on/half-baked