Babette's Feast may be a well-loved short story and Oscar-winning film, but it's a hell of a beast to wrestle onto a stage. Without the conjuring properties of Karen Blixen's original descriptions, or the magic-making budgets of Hollywood, theatremakers must summon war-torn Paris, icy rural Norway, two 19th-century timelines, and a feast so ludicrously luxurious it evokes a transcendental experience.
Director Bill Buckhurst has taken on the challenge, with a new adaptation from Glyn Maxwell. But, while there are some delicious moments, the results aren't wholly satisfying.
The story follows sisters Martine and Philippa, each courted in their youth by an ardent suitor but denied marriage by their father, the pastor of their small pious community. Years later, their father dead, the sisters sustain their parishioners, until a Parisian refugee with a flair for cooking becomes their live-in helper.
The production's main issue is a confusion over where to spend its time. There is much to explore – forbidden love, the religious versus the sensual life, community, self-sacrifice – and an hour and a half seems ample time in which to do it. But an uneven focus leaves the production feeling both too short and strangely empty. Babette's journey from France and the preparation of her feast both include impressive but lengthy movement sequences, but her years at the house are given short shrift. 12 years pass in the time it takes to make some loaves of bread, giving the bond between Babette and the sisters little time to prove. In a story about human connection, this feels a little frustrating.
There are moments, however, when these connections are given air, and here the production comes alive. Ladi Emeruwa is excellent as Martine's suitor, a Swedish cavalry officer whose bumbling attempts at romance in front of a pious prospective father-in-law squeeze every drop of bewilderment from Maxwell's painfully relatable script. The villagers develop in their dotage the bickering shorthand and unspoken supportiveness of a close family – drawn out superbly by Buckhurst's direction.
And there are roundly excellent performances from the cast. Henry Everett is particularly enjoyable as both Philippa's peacocking suitor, a Parisian star baritone, and the hen-pecked husband of village busybody Kara, played with matriarchal glee by Amanda Boxer.
There are also haunting hymns from composer Olly Fox, which the cast performs beautifully. And designer Simon Kenny's dark, sparse set captures the community's frugal existence, while also rustling up banqueting tables and boats.
Buckhurst has similar moments of simple but perfect creativity – the mirroring of gestures between the actors playing the young and old sisters allows them to pass the narrative baton across a 49-year time gap.
But the challenge of the feast cannot be solved with such simplicity, and without the sight and smells of the banquet, it's hard to believe the awakening it evokes in the villagers, however well they mime over their empty plates.
It may be that Babette's feast is best served up on the page where, like the story's characters, we are encouraged to experience something other worldly: the transportive visions on offer in our mind's eye.