Mmm, pie. Everyone in Waitress gets SO deeply, gushily excited about how much they LOVE pie. In a way that seems pretty weird, considering the disconcerting contents of the creations its central character Jenna whips up (blueberry and bacon, anyone?) – but perhaps their incongruity is a clue that in this story, pie is not really a dessert, any more than the cocoa-based transportative delights in Joanne Harris’s Chocolat are just sweets. This is food-based magical realism, where the humble, um, pie becomes anything but. It’s a mundane product of female labour turned into the soul-healing, community-building, man-entrancing pastry-based incantation that everything from ’50s marriage manuals to Nigella Lawson told you it could be.
Pie is Jenna’s repository for all the frustrations and dreams that she can’t express any other way: she’s a damaged-but-sweet baking savant, with a touch of Amelie to her. When she becomes accidentally pregnant by the husband she longs to leave, her stress gets baked into the new recipes she invents, like a White Knuckle Pie, chalked up on the Specials board at the diner where she works – does the adrenaline baked into its buttery crust make it tough, or all the sweeter? Baking is also what ties her to her mother, and to the comfort she offered Jenna, growing up with an abusive father. And it’s also how she expresses her sexuality – she uses a Marshmallow Mermaid Pie to seduces the gynaecologist who she visits after discovering she’s pregnant, in a brilliantly real and surreal opening song, set on either side of a toilet cubicle door.
It’s hard to communicate that kind of warped food-based sensuality in musical theatre, maybe harder than it is in cinema, where films like Ratatouille can swoop the camera through hectic kitchens and onto glistening plates and silken sauces, a neat curl of steam rising into the air. Waitress does an impressively good job of making the barely-visible slices of pie into a real, felt presence: both in the lusciousness of Scott Pask’s set design, which makes what could be a drab diner into a glowing, pastel temple to all things deep dish, and in the scented air, which smells as sweet and artificial as any supermarket bakery section, but somehow in a way that works.
That said, the actual pies on sale in the theatre (in lieu of theatre) are underwhelming: prettily packaged, but the chocolate/caramel flavour was essentially just a mason jar full of the kind of cold sugary goo I’d rather use as icing for some other, plainer baked good.
Also, they cost £6!?! Spooning your way through a bit of pricey edible merch feels almost like a reproof: homemade is best, however miserable the homelife that produces it.
Waitress is full of tensions like these, but not in a way that undermines it. It feels like a work that’s packaging a lot of potentially-unpalatable ideas in an entirely marketable package. Much has been made of its pioneering female-led team (composer, writer, director) and rightly so, because it’s a work that feels like it’s speaking to incredibly specific bits of womens’ experience, within a frame that embraces all the aesthetics of a certain kind of hyper-feminised nostalgia. Sara Barielles’ songs feel like they’re calling out to you from a dream; there’s a ‘Sugar, butter, flour’ motif which pings into your head and stays there, through songs which mix a driving rhythm with the delicate beauty of three-part vocal harmonies from its three waitresses. These songs are both emotionally rich and timeless. And that’s fitting for a show that exists in its own magical world; it’s set in no particular time period, apart from a vague reference to a dating ad, we could be anywhere from 1950 to the present day, but we’re probably in some kind of depoliticised sweet spot of vintage Americana.
But nostalgia isn’t ever straightforward. Customers like Tripadvisor user Ronald R, don’t want their ‘light trip down memory lane’ to be muddied by the more oppressive side of retro culture, the power dynamics behind the kitsch. Joe, an old man who frequents Jenna’s diner, is a sweetie but he’s also demanding, prone to making uncomfortable, sexualised comments that Jenna has to shrug off or half-indulge. At home, Jenna’s retro woodchip-walled living room houses an abusive husband who becomes furiously jealous of her unborn child, takes her tips, and crushes her desire for independence by a mixture of physical intimidation, financial exploitation, and emotional manipulation. And, earlier, I glossed over the fact that Jenna has a pie-prompted affair with her gynaecologist; but she does, and it’s as unsexy and ill-advised as it sounds.
Jenna is unfailingly nice and polite to all these men; she doesn’t say no to them, just like she never says no to the customers at the diner. Waitress, to me, feels like a story of all the quiet compromises that decades-worth of women have made in exchange for existing in the workplace, and in institutions built to control them. Jessie Nelson’s book, adapted from Adrienne Shelly’s indie film of the same name, knows this; it’s sensitive to the pressures that Jenna’s under, and worlds away from the moralistic ’40s film noir Mildred Pierce, where an implausibly-drawn pie-baking career woman is relentlessly punished for dreaming of life outside the home. Jenna’s not the kind of ‘strong female lead’ that Netflix’s algorithm perpetually nudges me towards, but that doesn’t make this story any less feminist, because in between her silences and sacrifices, we’re given everything we need to make up our own minds about the men in her life and the systems she lives under.
Jenna’s two fellow waitresses/friends are there to shake us out of her dreamily compliant worldview, even if that means cheerfully ignoring customers for a filthy gossiping session. Some reviewers have commented that this show’s contrast between seriousness and broad, saucy humour is jarring, and I can see how you could feel that, but it also speaks to something real about how workplace friendships and, especially, female friendships both operate. You can’t always swallow your more painful emotions, but you can turn them into the bleakest weirdest injokes or escape them in the most ridiculous fantasies. Here, everything gets chucked in the mix; acid on the sweetness, the lightest kind of bubbly nonsense to puff up the heaviness.
Jenna’s abusive husband Earl is both a monster and a bit of a joke, a puny, fuming drag-king-parody of a man; it’s like we’re seeing him through Jenna’s friends’ mocking eyes. A sub-plot following nerdy waitress Dawn’s romance is pure old-school musical comedy ridiculousness; imagine a gender-flipped version of Ulla from The Producers and you’re not far from the total slapstick energy of Ogie, a male love interest who’s never more than light relief, Dawn’s historical-costumed fantasy embodied. And, when she’s not having a fling with the diner’s chef, Becky lets vent to her frustrations in hilariously exaggerated rippling tones that sound like they could come from a pulpit; she knows she’s preaching to the choir.
Director Diane Paulus keeps this show in perpetual motion. Most obviously, in a bizarre onstage sex montage where all three waitresses get their fill at once. But also in a kind of endless dream-like succession of scenes that blurs the edges between bawdy hilarity and dreamy sung soliloquy. As Katharine McPhee sings, the band float in behind her on moving banks of scenery, a bass emerging unshowily for a solo before swimming back into the mix. McPhee’s voice holds this show together, too, because it’s achingly beautiful, giving a dignity and coherence to a role that’s all about submerged pain.
Waitress sells itself like an American diner, the kind that gets hundreds of reviews on TripAdvisor; pies! sweetness! nostalgia! ladies in fetching uniforms! And those things are all present. But its emotional impact on me feels like something I can’t baldly assess, or rate on multiple metrics. It’s like a warm, steamy bubble of temporary solidarity, a delicate shimmering outline held in place by opposing atmospheric tensions, which sustain themselves for only a few moments after you hit the unforgiving pavements of the streets outside.
Waitress is on at Adelphi Theatre until 19th October. More info here.