Theatre review: Perpetual Stew, Midsumma Festival

Bite-sized stories served at dinner.
A table laden with food and candles.

A collection of vignettes that centre on the dinner table, Perpetual Stew is like crashing a dinner party where the rules are tossed out the window (or, in this production’s case, smashed against the wall). The moment you step into the Black Box at The Motley Bauhaus, as a dinner “guest” you are greeted with a warm cup of miso soup – a nice touch that settles the audience into an hour of delicious chaos.  

The show, created by the trio of Milly Walker, Charlie Lawrence and Victoria Barlow, flits between scenes with style, serving up a noir-themed tale that stretches from an idealistic country mouse to an ant-pun fuelled conversation between, well, ants. It’s an ambitious feat for the production’s 60-minute runtime, but one that manages to keep the audience engaged throughout.  

Dinner scenes are the perfect playground for tension – think Pulp Fiction’s fast-paced diner scene, the absurd ‘Day-O’ rendition in Beetlejuice or the extremely tense family outing in Fleabag. They’re like pressure cookers of drama, where loaded silences, hidden agendas and polite small talk can explode at any moment. Perpetual Stew plays with these conventions – breaking societal norms and dinner etiquette with unorthodox table manners and questionable dishes – but never reaches explosion point. 

It’s difficult to discern whether the show’s runtime or the anthology format is the culprit here, but there are certainly moments that shine (hello TikTok scene and double date) and others that feel more like “filler”. Take the “fruit surprise” scene (a nod to Sex and the City’s Valentine’s Day sushi dinner). It’s a scene made up of a fairly muted argument, all text, and no subtext, that dissipates as quickly as it starts, leaving things unresolved.

While the lack of a clear narrative thread within each scene and across the overall production may leave you feeling as if you’re peeking into multiple worlds without fully immersing yourself in any of them, the ride is still delightful, thanks in no small part to the cast’s easy charm and enthusiasm.

Speaking of the cast, Courtney Crisfield and Tori Barlow steal the show with their range of characters and standout performances. Crisfield’s ability to switch between accents and personas is impressive, while Barlow’s solo violin performance sets the stage with elegance and flair. 

The attention to detail in the set design elevates the dining experience, with elements like the cardboard ant hill and tasteful table settings adding authenticity to each scene. The seamless transitions are a testament to the skilful direction and choreography of the show’s creators. This is particularly evident in the use of the intimate space of the Black Box, with the blocking choices pulling audiences into the work.

Occasionally, the characters do venture beyond the dining table to settings such as vet waiting rooms and the mean city streets. This, while somewhat disruptive, adds a comedic flair that may compensate for the departure from the show’s central location and aesthetic. 

And, as with any dinner party, there are highs and lows – in this production the highs peak early, leaving the energy to wane slightly towards the end. Fortunately, Barlow’s burlesque routine, complete with fake mouse nipples, brings the energy back just in time for the curtain.

Read: Performance review: Portent (a ritual), Holmes à Court Gallery

In the end, Perpetual Stew invites audiences to pull up a chair and join in the fun. It’s a charming and ambitious production that could use a bit of fine-tuning, but it’s well worth the ride for a night of laughter and entertainment.

Perpetual Stew
Motley Bauhaus

Presented by: Milly Walker, Charlie Lawrence and Victoria Barlow
Cast: Sam Eade, Courtney Crisfield, Conagh Punch 
Tickets: $28-$35

Perpetual Stew will be performed until 10 February 2024 as part of Midsumma Festival. 

Nina Culley is a writer and horror enthusiast based in Naarm. She’s the Studio Manager and Director of Melbourne Young Writers' Studio where she also teaches creative writing. Her works have appeared in Kill Your Darlings, Aniko Press and Eureka Street.