Most shows don’t start by letting the audience walk around onstage.
But that’s exactly what happens during the Grand Theatre’s presentation of Halifax-based Neptune Theatre’s East Coast Kitchen Party. Both before the show and during intermission, the audience is welcomed onto the stage to get a closer look at the details of Andrew Cull’s set, or buy a drink at the bar set up in one corner.
It’s a unique twist on the usual theatre experience, one that creates a relaxed, casual atmosphere and plays with the boundary of the fourth wall, allowing 800-plus audience members to feel like they’re active participants in the show’s eponymous kitchen party.
For those who might not be familiar, a kitchen party is part of the musical tradition on Canada’s East Coast, an informal event (often held in a kitchen) where friends and family gather to share music. Neptune’s concert-style show builds on that idea, as Karen Lizotte, Celia Owen, Malia Rogers, and Ian Sherwood (also the piece’s music director and co-creator, alongside Jeremy Webb) bring this music to London, Ontario. Over the course of the evening, each performer sings and plays multiple instruments (sometimes in the same song). From folk music standards like the accordion, guitar, bodhrán, and fiddle, to brief appearances of clarinets, saxophones, and live looping, the show’s music showcases the depth of its performers’ abilities.
While the songs themselves often highlight the group’s skill as an ensemble, each cast member also gets their own moments in the spotlight, at which point the rest of the cast steps back and becomes, effectively, part of the audience. The overall effect is an impressive presentation of effortless-seeming musicality, while also being inviting and communal, as the audience feels welcomed into the ensemble’s kitchen.
By virtue of Cull’s set, that kitchen is more literal than metaphorical. It includes everything from a fridge and kitchen sink (the subject of a witty pun or two), to dining tables and chairs where a limited number of audience members at each performance can sit and watch the show. That furniture is set against a backdrop that’s reminiscent of an East Coast-themed I Spy book, as hidden amongst teal clapboard is everything from model ships and ice skates, to tins of Spam and musical instruments (many of which end up being played at one point or another over the course of the evening).
The music itself is the star of the production, with the ensemble’s performance bringing to life well-known tunes like “Sonny’s Dream,” “Song for the Mira,” and a medley (or so called “Stanwich”) of Stan Rogers songs. The group also makes the music relatable for folks who may not be familiar with traditional East Coast songs — when introducing a medley of sea shanties, Malia Rogers makes specific reference to the resurgence of shanties on TikTok, and opens with “The Last Shanty” and “Wellerman,” two of the more popular picks from the genre on the app.
Throughout the show, the artists encourage audience participation. From the first song, they invite the audience to clap, stomp their feet, and sing along when they know the words (and at least at the performance I saw, it was clear that for much of the audience these songs were familiar favourites). Vicky Williams’ lighting design also helps to encourage this audience participation, as warm, bright light comes down on the audience during the chorus of many of the songs, visually incorporating them into the performers’ space. (And as an aside, this communal feel doesn’t end when the house lights come up — I’ve never had so many people strike up spontaneous conversations with me at the theatre before.)
The other fun twist of the evening comes in the form of a rota of special guests. Each night of Kitchen Party’s run features a different London-based musical group, which performs a mini set in the production’s second half as well as a longer one in the theatre’s lounge following the show. Opening night showcased The Pairs, a band whose velvety harmonies and compelling stage presence made them a standout of the performance. Bringing these local groups into the show is just one more way it makes itself welcoming and communal. These performances see the show’s primary quartet join the onstage audience members to listen to the guests, sharing the stage in a neat subversion of typical audience and performer roles, but I just can’t help but wish that the two groups had collaborated on a song or two.
The opening night performance of East Coast Kitchen Party received two standing ovations, and it’s easy to see why. The overall experience brings something fresh and unexpected into the theatre, not so much breaking the fourth wall as removing it entirely, and creating an atmosphere that is vibrant, social, and celebratory.
East Coast Kitchen Party runs through May 7. Tickets are available here.