Babette’s Feast review at the Print Room, London – ‘evocative, if overwrought’
Best known from the Danish film version, Karen Blixen’s short story Babette’s Feast traces the lives of two sisters living a remote Norwegian village and the impact of three visits at key moments in their lives.
A dashing Swedish officer and ardent French opera singer attempt unsuccessfully to woo devout young Martine and Philippa, who remain firmly attached to their devout community. Years later, mysterious Frenchwoman Babette comes to visit and ends up staying as an unpaid household help.
Glyn Maxwell’s adaptation frames the narrative by beginning in the grimmest days of the Paris Commune of 1871, where Babette is among those holed up and telling stories of the little yellow house at the end of the world. The sisters’ early lives take on a fairytale-like quality here as the ensemble reconfigures as singing parishioners and gossiping villagers.
As Babette, Sheila Atim is suitably aloof: she quickly becomes absorbed in the ascetic community life. But when, more than a decade later, it emerges that she has won the lottery, the pace picks up. The sisters are scandalised if secretly delighted by her plans to treat them to a slap-up dinner.
Georgina Lamb’s balletic kitchen choreography shines when supplies arrive, chefs toil and a huge table is laid. Now a general, the Swedish officer is guest of honour, played with chuckling gusto by Joseph Marcell, while Diana Quick and Marjorie Yates sparkle as the prim sisters gradually letting their hair down.
For a plot involving multiple flashbacks, the whirligig of time is beautifully handled: the characters appear mirrored in parallel generations, reminders of what might have been. But while this heartwarming meditation on humanity is undeniably poetic, its complexity can make it difficult to connect with the central characters.