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REVIEW: Angela’s Kitchen | Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne

There’s a moment in Angela’s Kitchen, Paul Capsis’ one-man show about his Maltese grandmother, when he acts out a scene set in the airplane as he travels to Malta for the first time. Looking out of the window as the plane begins its descent to his family’s ancestral homeland, he describes seeing a bright circle of land surrounded by sea, and wondering whether it could be an outlying island, some diminutive neighbour of Malta. But it’s not: it’s Malta itself.  The place that he has been fascinated by and has dreamed of visiting all his life is in fact so tiny that you can see it in its entirety from the airplane.

Capsis’ baffled realisation of the fragility of the world that has shaped his identity is a theme that runs all the way through the show. A loosely-linked collection of sketches without a three-act structure, Angela’s Kitchen delivers a sequence of memories alternately comical and touching, and occasionally a little self-indulgent. At the centre of all of them are Capsis’ beloved grandparents, Angela and “Nannu”.

Some stories are tragic, coming from a time when the family experienced extreme poverty; Capsis tells the story of his grandmother’s sister, who as a child was so desperately hungry that she scraped limesone from the walls of the village church and ate it. She didn’t survive past childhood. At the other extreme, the funniest scene in the play sees Capsis play himself as a child, along with his brother, mother, aunt and grandparents as they sit, eating, chain smoking, and arguing with gusto, around the kitchen table.

Capsis’ facility for accents and comic timing makes the scene come alive as he hops from playing one to the next, all elastic facial expressions and spot-on mannerisms. In the hands of a lesser performer it could descend into vaudeville, but there’s too much at stake for Capsis’s acts of ventriloquy to be mistaken for merely “doing impressions”.

Capsis moves with polyglot confidence from English to Maltese, a seldom-heard language whose blend of Arabic and Romance vocabulary makes it at once very foreign and oddly familiar. Although the show revolves around the small, domestic sphere of his grandmother — who couldn’t read or write, and had never even been on a ferry before she made the journey to Australia  – it grows to become a portrait of much more. Malta’s geography, architecture and ancient culture also emerge, along with episodes from its long and varied history.

The immigrant experience of Angela will resonate with many first and second-generation Australians, with its themes of hope, dislocation and an overwhelming sense of bewilderment about her new country. Poignantly, Angela never returned to Malta after emigrating in 1948, although she romanticised it endlessly for the rest of her life. This omission might explain some of the intensity with which Capsis longs to connect to her homeland, despite the ambivalence of the rest of his family in Australia.

It’s a longing that can sometimes tip over into unchecked nostalgia, and there are times when Capsis’s recollections meander. A good 15 minutes could have probably been trimmed from the show — birthed at Sydney’s Griffin Theatre in 2010 — without any serious loss. Compensating for this is Capsis’s flawless performance and the show’s stunning set design, which uses simple props — a scrubbed kitchen cupboard, crockery, some slippers — combined with projections to visually evoke an entire house, and then a town, and then the whole of Malta.

Known for his flamboyance and musicality, Capsis could have taken a much less gentle approach to the show. He could  have made it much more structured, more comical, more tragic, more everything. But he doesn’t: he keeps it to what feels like a very faithful and heartfelt honouring of the people his grandparents were and the world that they came from. And out of that relative quietude emerges something authentic and effecting.

In the play’s final scene, Capsis reenacts his departure from Malta by airplane. Again, he is looking out of the window, but this time the island is receding below him. As he strains to keep it in view, alive and full of memories, time and distance drag it ever further away.

In the struggle to preserve and celebrate the stories closest to our hearts, no matter how humble, Angela’s Kitchen is a winner.

The details: Angela’s Kitchen plays Beckett Theatre at the Malthouse until September 23. Tickets on the venue website.

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