Following on from 2017 Camden Fringe smash Dark Room, Jim Mannering is back with the second in a trilogy of comic thrillers – all taking place in the same odd universe, but each a standalone piece. This time we find ourselves in a seaside café of questionable quality (the specials board simply reads: NO EGG), with an interesting blend of characters both sat at the tables and waiting on them.
Christopher frequents the café of a morning, taking a simple breakfast of tea and toast each day, whilst reading a book and occasionally talking with members of staff Princess and Petra. He’s settled in his routine and seems to be doing no harm to anyone. However, everything changes when CJ decides, out of the blue, to come in during the morning – his incessant chatter & occasional impromptu busking delights Petra but drives Christopher to distraction. To top this off, Petra’s husband Tomas rather makes his presence felt, as it appears something quite seismic is about to hit the café…
To say any more would ruin much of the rest of the play, as Mannering delights in providing all sorts of twists and turns while the true nature of each character slowly comes to light. It’s not until the very end that you can be reasonably confident you know the truth about each character – or can you..? In a similar manner to this play’s predecessor, Dark Room, everything seems rather innocent to begin with, but it just takes one discovery to turn things on their head and set the wheels in motion – then suddenly all the secrets come flooding out. Over the course of just under an hour, the story is teased out gradually, keeping the audience on the edge of their seats.
As well as gripping, it’s also very funny – there are a great many belly laughs on offer in this play. And it all takes place in the same part of the café in real time; there are no scene changes to slow it down, and so the pressure & intensity continue to build throughout.
The cast of five play a massive part in the play’s success. Even the funniest of lines can be ruined in the wrong hands – thankfully this is not the case in Cafe of the Damned, as they all have a grasp of the dark comedy of the piece. David Hemsted’s musical interjections as CJ are especially memorable, drawing big laughs from the audience. Christopher’s rising frustration is played to great effect by Matthew Carter, with it becoming increasingly visible as the outside world intrudes on his solitude too much; he also has great comic timing with his more cutting remarks.
In the midst of this, Rekha John-Cheriyan bustles around as Princess (who’s more concerned about her broken phone screen than the rising tension in the room) and Beth Mullen plays up Petra’s apparent innocence and naivety. Jim Mannering’s stern portrayal of Tomas provides a good contrast with the rest – he mines the comedy with a blunt delivery of the seemingly mundane.
My verdict? Another dark delight from the world of Jim Mannering that might make you think twice before you venture into another greasy spoon – there are many memorable moments from a talented cast.
Cafe of the Damned runs at the Etcetera Theatre until 15 July 2018. Tickets are available online or from the box office.