Babette's Feast, theatre review: Plenty to chew over in cryptic tale

Riveting: Sheila Atim stars as Babette: Nobby Clark Photographer
Riveting: Sheila Atim stars as Babette: Nobby Clark Photographer

In the Eighties, Karen Blixen’s story of wasted talent and the redemptive power of artistry became an elegant, Oscar-winning film. This new adaptation by Glyn Maxwell emphasises its concern with community. Spanning several decades in the nineteenth century, it’s haunted by misunderstanding, denial and the shadows of conflict.

Sisters Martine (Diana Quick) and Philippa (Marjorie Yates) live in a remote fishing village in Norway. Though once wooed by distinguished men, they have long chosen to embrace pious austerity. As political turmoil ravages France, they take in mysterious refugee Babette. She serves them with scrupulous humility for years, and when she suddenly comes into a fortune treats the crabby locals to a fabulous French meal.

Those unfamiliar with the film or its source may find Maxwell’s version, in which characterisation matters less than atmosphere, a little cryptic. The story’s spiritual richness is undersold, and the passage of time isn’t clearly conveyed.

But there are some full-blooded performances from director Bill Buckhurst’s cast of eleven. The most arresting come from Sheila Atim, angular and riveting as Babette, and Joseph Marcell as a scandalously sybaritic general — and when Babette finally prepares her intricate and costly dinner in an act of startling self-sacrifice, there’s a satisfying mix of poignancy and sly humour.

Until June 3, The Print Room; the-print-room.org

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