In 1991's LIFT, Bobby Baker invited audiences into her Holloway kitchen for a disquisition on the spiritual aspects of home cooking; in 1993, she delivered a lecture on the Zen of supermarket shopping. This culinary performance artist has now created a show whose theme is the health-farm, but whose structure is that of a series of carnival sideshows.
The audience is led through the Royal Festival Hall foyer to a network of custom-built booths on the rear terrace, shepherded by Tamzin Griffin and Sian Stevenson in their dual roles as fairground barkers and health-farm staff. We are first presented with the Fat Lady: Baker, swathed in several white coats, disrobes to reveal that her pendulous "breasts" are in fact a pair of melons hanging in string bags around her neck.
There follows the Nut Shy, in which the audience pelt Baker with hazelnuts, trying to get one in her mouth as she raises and lowers a bucket over her head; the House of Horror, in which she grotesquely stuffs herself with bottled plums; and so on. By way of refreshments we are invited to suck on Guinness ice cubes, while Griffin demonstrates how to prepare them.
This is Baker's forte – forging from banal foodie activities a spectacle to which the term "surreal" does not begin to do justice. (This, after all, is the woman who once demonstrated how to bake – and wear – "breast pizza" and antlers made of dough.) She has perfected a blend of English sheepishness and vaudeville deadpan which conveys an air of mild, charming apology for her idiocies whilst simultaneously suggesting that we may indeed find the numinous tucked behind the courgettes in our fridge.
What Take A Peek! lacks, however, is the spoken element with which she has hitherto bound her spells: the lectures, anecdotes and general chat. Only the Fortune Teller here speaks at any length, and in a character not directly recognisable as Baker herself. Routines based on knife-throwing, acrobatics (on a massage table) and escapology begin to wear thin; the sketches are thematically linked, but the deficiency of Baker's usual linking role as amiable presenter is palpable. The semi-outdoor setting of the show, too, is a mixed blessing. The joy of seeing passers-by stare at a supremely cheesy dance routine is outweighed by the extraneous noises of traffic and South Bank skateboarders.
In a characteristically bonkers climax, Baker delivers her recipe for skinless chocolate custard then immerses herself in a bath of the stuff, emerging to be sprinkled by her assistants with confetti-like handfuls of hundreds and thousands. This is the Bobby Baker we know and love, a grand climax to a show unlike any other you will see this year... but I couldn't help yearning for more of her glorious spiel, and perhaps a portion of breast pizza.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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