By Paul Campobasso
The art of making a light, sugary creamy cheesecake becomes a progressively heavy, bitter, reflective and soul-searching experience in Helen Duff’s ‘Vanity Bites Back’.
If that description makes her routine sound strange, it’s because it absolutely is. Duff’s show is very unusual, but thankfully this is mostly in all the right ways. Though her humour can be a little hit-and-miss at times and probably won’t appeal to everyone, what’s undeniable is that Duff’s unique performance is always interesting, largely entertaining and definitely memorable.
Making her grand entrance to the stage from under the table, Duff is immediately engaging in her portrayal of ‘Jill’, a self-important and snobbish but exceedingly cheerful and extremely energetic TV personality. Reminiscent of a stereotypically dolled-up 1950’s housewife with an unwaveringly happy and somewhat naive demeanour, ‘Jill’ proceeds to distribute biscuits to her intrigued audience, before explaining that she’ll be showing us how to make cheesecake as part of a fictional television program.
Her cookery methods and hygiene are indeed unorthodox and messy, gaining many laughs from the enthusiastic crowd, though what really stands out are Duff’s improvisational skills. Throughout the show she converses with individual members of the audience, keeping things fresh and funny with her comical observations and quick witty retorts to their comments, regardless of whatever random subject arises and without ever breaking character. Duff’s charm, creativity and imagination during these sections of improv and audience participation create a much more personal and intimate atmosphere, where I not only got to know the frenetic host better but my fellow audience members too.
Overall ‘Jill’ is a fun, zany character though her tendency to suddenly come unhinged by occasionally repeating phrases over-and-over again as well as regularly freeze for seconds at a time while holding a deranged smile and intense gaze does sometimes lead to moments of confusion and awkward silence from her audience.
As ‘Jill’ introduces and adds each ingredient to the cheesecake, her boundless happiness falters more-and-more as she becomes increasingly insecure. By around the half way point the show’s tone shifts drastically with continual segues to ‘advertisements’, which involve Duff revealing her own personal stories and experiences with mental illness and an eating disorder. Enhanced by dimmed lighting and Duff’s emotional dramatic delivery, these transitions can come suddenly and the stories’ content is often uncomfortable and a little disturbing.
Duff gives the audience just a few seconds of silence to ponder her dark tale before returning to the show’s weirdness by falling back into the character of ‘Jill’. Grinning widely and doing a small jig to musical accompaniment, she moves back behind her cooking bench to continue making her cheesecake, though her wild and comical cooking style feel partly overshadowed by the gloomy mood from the story just shared.
It’s a strange format but an inventive one, incorporating many different elements that for the most part work well together. Duff’s personal stories revealing her history of anorexia are confronting, thought-provoking and brave while her decision to juxtapose her experiences against the backdrop of a colourful cooking program is interesting but occasionally confusing, especially when the show’s mood moves back-and-forth from bright and happy to dark and brooding.
All-in-all, Vanity Bites Back is creative, imaginative and informative with plenty of laughs while also shedding light on a serious condition in a highly respectful and intelligent way.
Vanity Bites Back shows from March 25 – April 19 at The Tuxedo Cat, 17-23 Wills St, Melbourne