Pepper and Honey – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Notnow Collective presents
Pepper and Honey
by Kristina Gavran
directed by Tilly Branson
Attenborough Arts Centre, Leicester
17 November 2019

Pepper and Honey asks a pertinent question: what is home? Writer Kristina Gavran considers this word and concept through the lives of two women: grandmother Baka Ana who lives on a small Croatian island, and Ana, her granddaughter who has left the island and her grandmother to start a new life in England.

Set in the present day, deep in the impasse of British politics with no clear decision about the way forward, we learn about Ana’s 12 years in England as she negotiates and embraces a new country, language and culture—and what she wants to call home. She applies for settled status and tries to buy the patisserie where she works to run it herself (interestingly, the current British owners want to sell up and retire to Spain).

But while Brexit Britain looms like a shadow in this story, the emotional heart of the play is the push and pull between grandmother and grandchild—the tug to and from identity, culture, family, ambition, tradition. Move away or stay and wait?

Baka Ana bakes the sweet and spicy Croatian biscuits paprenjaci and sends a tin every month to Ana, hoping this taste of home will bring her back. Ana, despite enduring taunts and jibes (essentially “go back to where you came from”), is determined to break free from the constraints of how she sees her life had she stayed on the Croatian island.

Tina Hofman plays the roles of Ana and Baka Ana; the transitions from one character to the other are clearly and cleverly done, with Hofman adept at playing hunched, elderly Baka Ana, her arthritic fingers knotted and inflexible. With a confident flourish of her apron, she switches to Ana, head held high, radiant and welcoming. Hofman is an engaging storyteller, bringing in audience members throughout the performance to help her bake the traditional pepper and honey biscuits on stage as Baka Ana, talking only in her native tongue.

Director Tilly Branson and her team deliver a subtle and charming production, rich in detail and interconnecting threads of meaning and experience. Eleanor Field’s set combines a boat and sail, evoking the island life of Croatia, with the functionality and ‘homeliness’ of the patisserie kitchen. Adam McCready’s sound design carries us to and from Croatia with songs, and combines effectively with translations projected onto the sail (David Hately). James Stokes’s lighting design complements the changes in place and character. Whilst some of the play is delivered in Croatian, and sometimes with translations on the sail, this production confidently shows that we humans don’t always need an understanding of the spoken word to understand meaning, with much humour (and a recipe) conveyed through gesture and facial expression.

Gavran’s writing is alive with sensuous detail, painting the different colours of island life and the lives of her two characters. There is perhaps nothing as evocative as the smell of baking coming from the kitchen to remind you of home, and as the play progresses the unmistakable aroma of biscuits baking in the oven wafts through the performing space. A ‘ting’, and they are done, cooked on stage—a lovely touch.

Pepper and Honey does not seek to provide answers or a solution; everyone’s idea of home is different, after all. We share both characters’ journeys, whether that is taking your culture with you as you settle elsewhere, or staying amongst your traditions and family. Home is not as clear cut as the place where you live.

This production has now completed its 2019 run, with more dates to be announced for 2020.

Images by Fernando Photography

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