Fringe performers have found many ways to exorcise grief through art after the death of a parent, but surely none by summoning them back from the dead with onstage cookery as Chicago-based John Michael does here. This improbable interactive comedy is as daft as it sounds, and yet at the same time, remarkably moving. By the end, you’re devastated for him. John Michael’s hyperactivity has been a thin veil for the sadness at the heart of Meatball Séance, and you dearly wish mum to make herself known.
It all starts very cheerily. John Michael, dressed only in briefs and apron, announces in grand style and with a broad smile that he has a new boyfriend. At length, ‘Boyfriend’ is seduced and selected from the audience and brought to the stage, the first of many such optional interactions. It’s only then we get to the sadness in the piece. John Michael wants Boyfriend to meet Mum, only Mum’s no longer here…
What follows is exactly the description in the programme. He and we start rustling up Mum’s famous meatballs, using real ingredients, in an attempt to summon her spirit back to meet Boyfriend. There’s a lot of Fleetwood Mac (another of Mum’s favourites), there’s testing of ingredients, there’s chants and incantations, all with the increasingly flustered and desperate John Michael flying round the room, willing us on to make it happen.
For something so sad, it’s joyous (or vice versa). John Michael’s wide-eyed optimism is infectious, and the energy he throws out into the room is high (possibly too high for some!) It takes a while until we’re fully on board with what’s going on, but once we are, the connection created in the room is palpable.
There are a couple of minor distractions from the here-and-now of it. Boyfriend #2 is from The Second City clique in Chicago, but the references don’t add much to the story for an Edinburgh crowd. The confines of a Bar Bados room also make a cooking-themed show tricky, even for us to see the ingredients being prepared, but John Michael improvises as best he can with the space and props. He never loses us.
By the time the recipe’s complete and we’re ready to start summoning, everyone is rooting for him. He’s shared so much and seemed so vulnerable. Spoiler alert: we don’t literally wake the dead, but Mum’s spirit will be in every room this is performed in for sure.