It begins with the sound of a knife being sharpened rhythmically. The vegetables tremble with fear in their wooden box before being sent to the soup. Between acts, a monstrous shadow looms ever closer to a table set for one. A terrifying butcher forces his meat-worshipping laity to sing hymns before he hands over the chops. Pass the Spoon has all the appearances of a bizarre horror show, and, in a sense, that's exactly what it is – except that it's too absurdly funny to be really threatening. It's almost a pantomime – we're asked to chant things like 'fork!' or 'soup!' at various points – but there is so much that is truly grotesque in this piece that kids would be better off left at home.
This zany and darkly funny collaboration between artist/cartoonist David Shrigley, composer David Fennessy, and director Nicholas Bone will clearly not be everyone's cup of tea. If vegetable puppets and a man in a banana suit sound utterly childish to you, you'll probably want to give this one a miss. For my part, the prospect of dancing veg crossed with “opera” and David Shrigley’s particular brand of dark absurdist humour had me more or less sold from the outset, and it did not disappoint.
June Spoon and Philip Fork are the two sickeningly perky hosts of a television cooking programme called Pass the Spoon. But this is no MasterChef: on Pass the Spoon, the pair must cook up a ‘bonny supper’ for their guest, Mr Granules – a monstrous puppet rumoured to eat babies – who is coming in less than an hour.
That’s enough plot for Shrigley to turn this piece into an absurd, delightfully grotesque farce. Large turnip, potato and carrot puppets are interviewed one by one to be included in the soup. Mr Granules eats one of the characters, and Philip Fork appeals to a priestly butcher for help. If this wasn’t enough, Shrigley tops it off with a musical number in which Gavin Mitchell, bravely dressed as a giant lump of excrement, serenades us with “Everyone will turn to sh*t, everyone is sh*t”.
While there were too few musical numbers for Pass the Spoon to pass as an opera – it's described as “a sort-of opera” – Nicholas Bone’s orchestral score was suitably inventive and playful. The use of balloons, knives, and bubble wrap, for example, worked well with the absurdity of the play itself, as did the Red Note Ensemble's being dressed in chef uniforms. It could have been a little bolder, however, as it seemed that towards the end, the focus was less on the music than on the actors.
Comic timing was brilliant overall: Pauline Knowles as the pert, Scottish, slightly unhinged June Spoon is delightful, and as over-the-top as her bobble-shaped hairdo. Stewart Cairns as her male counterpoint Philip Fork plays the anxious and blubbering foil to Spoon’s impenetrable TV smile. Gavin Mitchell’s mock-operatic solo as a manic-depressive alcoholic "Mr Egg" performs comical shifts from falsetto to baritone in the middle of a phrase – and you have to hand it to an actor who has the versatility to play both an egg and excrement. Also worthy of note was the suave, latin Mr Banana (Martin McCormick in a full-body banana suit) who provided one of the funniest moments of the piece when he tried to fit his banana suit in a pew. Finally, some of my favourite scenes involved the Butcher (Peter Van Hulle), a stony-faced priest of meat who sharpens his cleaver with chilling precision. His customers must sing him a hymn before he will sell them anything: “We are not worthy to gather up the scraps from under your counter… For thine is the filling, the pie, and the gravy”.
The butcher-shop set was brilliant, too: a tabernacle-slash-crucifix containing both meat and a bug-zapper was both daft and offensive – exactly my type of humour. Sets, costumes, and props were fantastic across the board – brightly coloured, oversized and overstuffed, and suited perfectly to Shrigley's bizarre script. Pass the Spoon was superbly good fun overall: an excellent complement to Shrigley's current exhibition at the Southbank, and just as off-the-wall strange.