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Review: “Half Baked” by Nina Jurković @ North Wall Arts Centre/00Productions

James Newbery reviews the first live post-Lockdown show in Oxford.

A recent preview of Half Baked left me a little unsure of what to expect. Would COVID guidelines and rushed rehearsal schedules leave the show feeling a little underbaked? Rest assured, the cast and crew all rose to the occasion, delivering what was a hugely enjoyable and entertaining night out.

The show itself is centred around the premise of what happens if a bakery gets a cocaine delivery instead of flour. Nina Jurković delights us with a script that is witty, fast-paced and filled with a delicious number of bun-themed puns. Without spoiling the plot, the play takes an unexpected turn satirizing the ongoings of the contemporary art scene. Indeed, it is the way that Jurković uses bread to explore big questions about the nature of art that is the biggest strength of Half Baked. At one point, the show becomes slightly meta when one of the characters begins to consider what it would be like to write an all-female play that for once is not about the woes of being a domestic housewife pining after a man. The fact that Bourne Bakery is perennially empty and in wait for a customer feels like an intentional allusion to the café in Fleabag, immediately setting the tone for a play in which women are allowed to be themselves, rather than filtered entirely through the perspective of the male gaze. The play reminded me of the Bechdel test, in which at least two women have to talk about something other than a man for a work of fiction to pass. Half Baked passes the Bechdel test with flying colours. It is truly a feminist triumph and is so refreshing to see an all-female cast on an Oxford stage—something of a rarity, especially in the genre of farce.

In terms of performances, there was not a weak link in the cast. Leah Aspden must be commended for her performance as the lead Hazel. She flooded the stage with a real sense of charisma and warmth in every scene that she was in, immediately setting the audience at ease. Poddy Wilson also showed excellent coming timing as Molly, completing the double act that lies at the heart of the piece. Both of the actors, despite only being in first year, showed real maturity in their performances—I am sure we will be seeing much more of them over the coming years when Oxford theatre properly resumes in person. I also particularly enjoyed some of the minor roles. Anna Coles as the ‘dumb-blonde drama school student’ was a main highlight of the night, while Beth Ranasinghe, Maggie Moriarty and a surprise cameo from the Assistant Director Gabe Winsor really proved the mantra that there is ‘no such thing as a small part’, making me cackle with laughter even in the moments they were not saying anything on stage.

The show is not perfect. The blocking was at times slightly stilted (which is understandable given the short rehearsal period they had in the North Wall Arts Centre itself). At times the characters felt a little too much like stereotypes, and the first third could have been significantly reduced in length. But it was such a pleasure to be back in a real live theatre watching people perform in real life rather than behind a computer screen, and there is no better first post-lockdown show to see.

I had the pleasure of speaking to Nina Jurković (writer/director) about the creative development of the show itself.

What inspired you to write Half Baked?

“My friend Maxine and I were putting on a production of Blithe Spirit back in 2018, when the male lead dropped out, and we couldn’t replace him. It was not the best position to be in two months before opening night. We had an all-female cast, and so out of spite, we were determined to do an all-female play, but we couldn’t find anything that wasn’t sad, or didn’t have the word ‘dildo’ in the first scene. We fashioned a number of phone note scribbles into a plot, which became the short play Toast. Maxine edited and advised while I wrote, giving the cast whatever scraps we had just finished for each rehearsal, eventually finishing the script five days before opening night. Three years later, our production company applied for the residency slot at the North Wall, seeking to improve the play, iron out some of the problems, and develop it into a more complete and less frantically written whole. Now, it’s ‘Half Baked’.”

Biggest challenge in the rehearsal process?

“We’ve had to rehearse outside, due to a cheeky little global pandemic, so dodging pigeons, rain and runaway dogs have been our main obstacles. Rehearsing without any tables, chairs or props, while also keeping a metre apart at all times has been a slightly unconventional rehearsal process, but it’s definitely been better than zoom, and you can work wonders with a well-placed puffer jacket. Also, trying to describe where we were in University Parks when most of our company didn’t know what rugby posts were was pretty difficult, too.”

Why should people come and see Half Baked?

“If you’ve been missing student theatre, this is what you’ve been waiting for! The cast and our production team are absolutely fantastic, talented, and hilarious. It’s also not about disasters, death, or any real problems at all, so it’s hopefully a good bit of escapism, and if we’re really lucky, you might even find it a bit funny, maybe, hopefully. Plus, I found it quite exciting to actually go all the way out to Summertown for the first time – got very excited by the big M&S.”

Fave type of cake?

“I’m ~*vegan <3*~, so if I find anything that isn’t dense or oddly chewy, I’m very very happy. My favourite cake is my mum’s dutch apple cake, which she makes with Bramley apples, and has this crunchy cinnamon sugar crust which is really unbeatable.”

Half Baked in three words?

“Is it flour?”

Half-Baked continues tonight and Saturday, 22nd May at 7:30pm (2:00pm matinee on Saturday) at The North Wall, Summertown. Tickets are available at https://www.thenorthwall.com/whats-on/half-baked/. 

Artwork by Vie Richards.

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