Paul Capsis should wear a cape, to forewarn of his superhuman talents. Long have I been in awe of this man, from his trembling incantations as a doyenne of divahood, whether Joplin or Garland, to his impassioned recorded vocal performances, to his no-holds-barred, take-it-or-leave it ‘shemanic’ characterisation in Head On. He’s a force to be reckoned with but, in Angela’s Kitchen, an autobiographical outing of his family, he documents another cyclonic personality: his dear, departed grandmother. His strong identification with her might well be the meeting of two minds, or sympathetic souls.

By way of a set comprising little more than an old cupboard and kitchen-table, some sketchy, projected imagery and the odd gender-altering wardrobe-change. These simple objects suffice wonderfully to unravel the complex, knotty strands of transplanted, fractured family, a daunting, wrenching task in which he has been sensitively partnered by co-writer (Hilary Bell kicked in a few ideas, too, I gather) and director Julian Meyrick.

The cupboard alone is just the thing to symbolise notions of skeletons, of history, of hidden objects and feelings.

Capsis is often offstage (though where the stage begins and ends is tantalisingly moot, since there’s an old Kelvinator and framed print out there too), evocatively depicting the return of the prodigal son: his pilgrimage to his maternal Malta, a country only known and recognised, however richly cultivated, in his mind, to that point; images rendered there through the stories, hazy memories, dusty recollections and, perhaps, wishful thinking, of his grandparents.

Not everyone can or will relate to Capsis tale, at least not first-hand. But there are many among us who can and will make tiny leaps into our own tormenting tales of heritage; of origins in foreign lands, stirrings in blood which bubbles from a font sacred to somewhere else. Capsis’ is clearly, an awakening, a reckoning, many of us must and do have to face, at some unbidden point in lives over which we’ve limited control.

Through vignettes, poetry, dreamlike songs from childhood and in plain, unadorned language, Capsis captures the essence of his own family, but also of the universal human one. Not everyone hails from a tiny Mediterranean archipelago, but everyone is, at times, an island, engulfed by a voracious sea, clinging to land.

Miraculously, Paul the prodigy carries on a conversation at Angela’s table, recounting interactions between his grandparents, mother, aunt, brother and himself: he is, in that moment all things to all people. The focus to pull this off, while successfully differentiating the roles, is terrifyingly consuming, but PC shows himself to be an acrobatic actor.

It’s all wrought with such devotion, commitment, sincerity and detail (if I’d taken a few notes, I’d have the basis for a thesis on Maltese migration and genealogy), such heart, clearly unburdened in the telling, resistance to being moved is useless. Your very soul is likely to be shifted a little, never to return to its original position. At the every least, you’ll be transported, on a plane to Malta. You’ll see the deep, deep blue of the sky. The sparkling harbour. The oldest manmade structure on the planet, on Gozo. The dome of the Mosta, breached by a bomb that still resides there. But this isn’t a travelogue of geographical dimensions, but one which traverses the shape of the heart.

Capsis connects with and reconciles his past. We connect with him and the relatives he brings back to life. We’re imbued with a reinvigorated determination to connect with our own families. And others. That’s the very considerable, hopeful legacy, if not intention, of this play. It’s about finding, or rediscovering, belonging. Community. About remembering things we’ve forgotten. Important things. It’s a key, a door, a portal, a tool, which we can turn, open, through which we can pass, which we can pick up and use, to find a new piece of ourselves. And a new peace in ourselves. It’s a small, unassuming piece of theatre. With big potential.

“I imagine my grandmother; I think about her in her house, during the war, hearing the air-raids in the tiny bakcyard in which they bred rabbits. I feel like I’m there, even though I’m not born yet.'”If that in any way chimes, you should secure a seat as soon as possible at Angela’s kitchen-table.

Curtain Call rating: A, for Angela

The details: Angela’s Kitchen plays the SBW Stables Theatre until December 18. Tickets on the Griffith Theatre website.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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