Review: Mumburger at Old Red Lion Theatre

First, a word of warning: don’t go and see Mumburger on an empty stomach. It’s all kinds of confusing.

Now that we’ve got that out the way, let’s discuss Sarah Kosar’s play. Andrea just died in a horrific car accident on the M25, leaving behind her devastated daughter Tiffany (Rosie Wyatt, reprising her Offie-nominated role) and husband Hugh (Andrew Frame). What begins as a seemingly straightforward story of two people struggling to process their grief in very different ways (she’s made a Google spreadsheet and is looking at urns on Amazon; he just wants to read the messages of condolence on Facebook and watch his wife’s favourite movie) takes a surreal and grisly turn when a mysterious delivery arrives. Inside the greasy bag are burgers – an odd enough sight in a house of committed vegans, even before we learn that they’re in fact a “Digestive Memorial” arranged by Andrea as a way to sustain her family after she’s gone.

Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli

If it’s visceral theatre you’re after, you’ve come to the right place; it’s impossible to watch Mumburger – which follows Tiffany and Hugh’s horrified attempts to abide by Andrea’s final wish – without feeling some kind of physical reaction. Director Tommo Fowler has obeyed to the letter the writer’s instruction that “the actors should consume food when it says they eat”, so there’s no getting away from either the consumption or the various bodily functions that accompany it. (Or indeed the smell of cooking burgers, which explains the confusion I mentioned earlier.) It’s disgusting and messy and uncomfortable to watch, particularly when you add into the mix a series of video projections against the curtain at the back of the set, which verge at times on motion sickness inducing.

But let’s put the meat to one side for a second. At its heart,¬†Mumburger is a story about a family coping with the loss of the person that held them together. Though we never meet Andrea, Kosar’s script paints a detailed picture of her; it’s clear from listening to Tiffany and Hugh argue and reminisce that she was the common link between them, and that without her they’re almost strangers who have no idea how to communicate. Both are also pretty annoying in their own ways; Tiffany, played by Rosie Wyatt, is shrill, domineering and self-involved, while Andrew Frame’s Hugh would rather play Candy Crush on his iPad than deal with anything even remotely difficult. Each believes that they knew Andrea better and therefore has more right to grieve, and the mumburgers become a physical manifestation of that competition. All of which begs the question: was Andrea’s intention really a noble wish to help her bereaved daughter and husband go on, or was it prompted by her own selfish need to maintain her position at the centre of the family for as long as possible?

Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli

Many plays about bereavement go for the emotional jugular, encouraging us to feel sympathy for the characters and move us to tears as we watch them bond over memories of their loved one. Mumburger is not one of these plays. You’re more likely to come out feeling slightly sick than overwhelmed with emotion (though the play certainly has its moments) but that doesn’t make it any less real, and in this regard it’s actually oddly refreshing. Death – particularly of the sudden, violent kind – is not romantic or glamorous, but messy and painful. Not everyone who dies is perfect; nor are the people they leave behind. Grief can drive us apart just as much as it brings us together. These may not be truths we want to hear – or see, or smell – but they’re truths all the same. Not one for the faint-hearted (or vegetarians), maybe, but Mumburger certainly makes a lasting and powerful impression.


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Review: Off the Kings Road at Jermyn Street Theatre

Off The Kings Road is the first full-length play from former Hollywood publicist Neil Koenigsberg. A touching reflection on grief, companionship and getting older, the play sees American widower Matt Browne check into a small hotel in London, where he intends to spend some quiet time rebuilding his life following the death of his adored wife, Betty, from cancer. But London has other plans for Matt, and the resulting journey of self-discovery is at once laugh out loud funny and powerfully moving.

Michael Brandon leads the cast as Matt with a performance that perfectly captures his character’s fragility, but also his humour and compassion; we can’t help but like this genuinely good guy who’s just trying to make his way in a new, unfamiliar world. Along the way he meets some interesting characters, among them Freddie, the hotel concierge, and Ellen, a crazy cat lady from down the hall. Luke Pitman and Cherie Lunghi shine in these¬†roles; as a long-term resident, Ellen has a close friendship with Freddie, and the affectionate scenes they share on stage are wonderful to watch.¬†Though the two¬†roles are predominantly humorous ones,¬†with both actors revelling in their characters’ eccentricities, there are hidden depths here too: Freddie, while often a touch over-enthusiastic, is very good at his job and genuinely cares about his guests’ welfare, while Ellen turns out to have a lot more in common with Matt than he realises.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith
Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Diana Dimitrovici also appears as a Russian prostitute, the intriguingly named Sheena McDougal. Following their first encounter in her flat, the relationship between Matt and Sheena moves in a direction that’s not wholly unexpected, but no less touching for its predictability, and Dimitrovici gives a strong performance as a young woman disguising¬†her own vulnerability with a veneer of toughness.

In a unique and thoroughly modern twist, the cast of Alan Cohen’s production includes¬†a fifth member, one who never sets foot on the stage; Oscar winner Jeff Bridges ‘e-appears’ as psychiatrist Dr Kozlowski, with whom Matt has several Skype calls throughout the play. There’s comedy gold in these scenes, partly in watching the two men attempt to use the technology, but mostly because¬†Kozlowski is a spectacularly bad¬†psychiatrist, who’s going through his own marital difficulties, and seems permanently a bit¬†stoned. But where he fails as a doctor, he succeeds as a friend – proof that we don’t always need someone with all the answers; sometimes we just need somebody who’ll listen when things go wrong. These scenes fit so¬†naturally within the live action, and Brandon interacts with the screen so well,¬†that it’s almost possible to forget Bridges’ appearance is¬†pre-recorded.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith
Photo credit: Pamela Raith

At its heart, Koenigsberg’s play is a celebration of human relationships, in all their wonderful weirdness. Matt starts out as a lonely figure, but as soon as he allows other people in, his life begins to change (mostly) for the better.¬†Like the Ingmar Bergman movie referenced throughout the play, this bittersweet comedy is the story of a man on a journey, both physical and emotional – and like its characters, it’s very hard not to love.


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