The typical play does not require its actors to cook and serve food to the audience, but prior to one performance of the show Crumble, Laura Hooper found herself spending five hours preparing elaborate canapes like parmesan lollipops and spinach balls.
“I realized I could learn from this,” Hooper said. “The show runs for an hour, so I shouldn’t spend four times the length of it making the food.”
Hooper still creates appetizers before each performance of the play, a site-specific work that takes place in real kitchens, but has since opted for less labor-intensive recipes.
Crumble is the story of Sylvie Cranshaw, a housewife from the kind of village in northern England that wins awards for its gardens and is populated by Stepford-esque ladies in pearls. Sylvie is one such woman; a “lovable weirdo,” she invites guests to the kitchen where she is cooking dinner for her husband, and with her cheeky sense of humor and copious innuendos, makes them feel at home. But as the evening progresses, it becomes evident that Sylvie is harboring dark secrets; as they emerge, she begins to unravel.
The idea for Sylvie first came about when writer Mark O’Neil was taking a workshop in southeast London.
“A lot of the women in the group were saying that men are really bad at writing female characters, so I set out deliberately to see if I could do it,” O’Neil said.
What initially resulted was a twenty-minute monologue, which Hooper performed in 2005 at a theater shorts festival. Years later, the two Brits found themselves in New York at the same time; over drinks, they discussed whether Crumble might work stateside.
The play has since been expanded and performed internationally, in the homes of hosts who must be prepared to relinquish their spaces to a daffy amateur chef. The first half is improv, and Hooper and O’Neil say that the changing settings and crowd interactions make each experience of Crumble distinct, and often a touch unpredictable.
“Audiences in each country have been very different,” Hooper said. One performance, held in a Northern Ireland farmhouse (complete with a pet pig), turned into a dance party as Sylvie and her guests got down to Tina Turner. The English are more quiet and reserved, Hooper said, “whereas New Yorkers will often try to take over the show.”
One constant is the intimacy of the production. Rosie Yakob, who hosted Crumble in her Wall Street apartment, worried at first about seating: She had guests gathered on a couch, chairs, an ottoman, and even a bed. “But the seating setup plays into the intimacy,” she said, “and we were surprised by how well Laura holds your attention for it being a solo-style play.”
June 18 will kick off the third run of Crumble in New York, and so far, performances are scheduled in apartments in Williamsburg, Union Square, and the Upper East Side. By now, Hooper said, she’s well prepared for the challenges that this unusual role brings. As Sylvie, she must go through the motions of cooking a spicy mince crumble for her husband, the logistics of which can lead to the unexpected.
“I have to situate myself in the kitchen and know which cupboard everything is in,” Hooper said. “I explain to hosts that if something goes wrong, if there’s a spill, Sylvie will take care of it. Sometimes they might try to step in and I have to be creative with how I handle the banter.”
One kitchen, she remembers, featured a fridge with an overactive ice dispenser, which quickly became a running gag throughout the performance. “If I was doing this when I was 25 that would have terrified me,” Hooper said, but now, as a more experienced actress, “things like that are a gift.”
Hooper must also perform the balancing act of allowing for spontaneity in the first half, while guiding the story toward the monologue that constitutes the second. And she spends hours, too, developing new recipes, taking into consideration seasonality, dietary restrictions, and, naturally, what kind of naughty spin Sylvie might put on dishes. This time around, guests can expect some phallic baked jalapenos, “devilish” eggs, and something called “skinny dip,” as well as a close look at the darkness that can lie beneath the most prim and proper surfaces.
Tickets, available here, are $25 for performances in kitchens throughout NYC.