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Excessively cutesy but still-enjoyable Karen Blixen adapation
Heard of hygge? Well, Glynn Maxwell’s new play turns up the fabled Danish cosiness to eleven, turning Karen Blixen’s subtle short story into something a bit more sumptuous. A huge cast in fetchingly hempen garments play the inhabitants of a tiny Danish village, prone to gossip and outbreaks of haunting choral singing. But their twee utopia is unsettled by the arrival of Babette, an enigmatic refugee from revolutionary France.
Babette (Sheila Atim) is taken in by two devout, elderly sisters, and after over a decade of quietly serving them, she wins the lottery and decides to cook them an insanely lavish banquet with her winnings. The Oscar-winning 1987 movie which made ‘Babette’s Feast’ famous was set in a grimy fishing town, inhabited by squabbling, divided members of a religious sect. Maxwell’s adaptation sweeps away this mucky realism in favour of a fairytale atmosphere, with his simple, abstracted dialogue heightened by director Bill Buckhurst’s quietly old-fashioned approach to the story.
Said approach is often pretty magical - especially in the stylish ensemble scenes, where Babette cooks up a silent storm of invisible haute cuisine classics. But the story is sometimes frustratingly elliptical, and misses much of Karen Blixen’s wry satire of puritanical extremism and religious in-fighting.
And the addition of a final speech for Babette feels clumsy. Blixen leaves her desolate, a broke, clapped-out Cinderella among dirty pots and pans who acts as a living metaphor for religious sacrifice. Here, there’s a final speech where she announces that she’s a culinary artist who’s found fulfilment in blowing her dough on, well, dough (and caviar, and quails, and champagne).
It’s an implausibly cosy ending. But if this play’s odd mix of religious satire, sentimentality and lip-smacking greed doesn’t quite come together, there’s just enough lingering atmosphere to make it a hygge-ly satisfying evening.