The Diabolical Gourmet by Alex Shearer

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The Diabolical Gourmet by Alex Shearer (2010). Dir. Neil Cargill. Perf. Mark Benton, Ian McNeice, Royce Mills. BBC Radio 4 Extra, 19 Mar. 2015. BBCiPlayer

In the days of my youth I remember considerable controversy being generated by the release of "La Grande Bouffe" (aka "Blow-Out") (1973), a Franco-Italian film telling of four friends gathering over a weekend with the intention of eating themselves to death. The film's grotesque over-eating scenes and scatological humor offended several critics as well as the British Board of Film Censors, which refused to give it a certificate. I believe it was given an eventual release with the sanction of the Greater London Council (GLC) at art-house cinemas.

Alex Shearer's comedy focuses on much the same subject-matter. Père Gourier (Ian McNeice) a bored landowner, has the idea of taking hard-up acquaintances to the best restaurants in Paris and feeding them to death. Everyone knows he is doing it, but technically speaking he is not breaking the law. As performed by McNeice, Gourier comes across as a thoroughly affable character, enjoying the prospect of conversation with his various victims while plying them with endless plates of meat and poultry. Although ostensibly set during the French Revolution, this form of murder has a particularly British flavor to it, a civilized method of disposal reminiscent of Robert Hamer's immortal film "Kind Hearts and Coronets."

Enter Ameline (Mark Benton), an executioner's assistant who volunteers to bring Gourier to justice by beating him at his own game. He decides to match the landowner steak for steak, to see who will blow out first. Neil Cargill's production dramatizes the struggle in vivid, often graphic terms: the chink of cutlery and the affable sound of waiters bringing yet more dishes for the rivals' delectation reminding us that this is a struggle, quite literally, to the death. This is like a duel, only this time the weapons are plates of food rather than rapiers.

Listening to "The Diabolical Gourmet" brought back memories of a never-to-be-forgotten dinner given by a friend, which started with a large plate of manti (Turkish ravioli with yogurt and mint), followed by lamb tandir (tandoori) - a huge cut of meat cooked for hours in an earthenware pot, followed by künefe (a wheat based dessert with syrup and cream). I was so stuffed after the first course that I had to go to the bathroom and expel it before I could move onto the meat. The experience is not one I wish to repeat; the mere thought of it turns my stomach. Listening to Shearer's play brought back similar feelings of nausea.