We Didn’t Come to Hell for the Croissants review – wonderfully weird cabaret of the unexpected

Riverside Studios, London
Jemma Kahn’s show begins with a striptease, then ponders existential questions before ending with an orgiastic dinner party

This peculiar and alluring act begins as burlesque: Jemma Kahn starts on a coy-eyed striptease, first her skirt and then the stockings, but things take an unexpected – comic, odd, compelling – turn.

More strange turns follow, from the seven stories she tells, all revolving around the deadly sins, to her absurdly savage mime involving a Beatles song, a silver hammer and an assortment of fruit.

Having travelled around the world from South Africa, this is a bizarre, camp, entertainingly unsettling show that serves up the unexpected. It is so arresting in its weirdness that at 70 minutes it leaves us slightly panting – not least because the final, eye-watering tale is like one of Anaïs Nin’s sexy stories, culminating in an orgiastic dinner party plus nipple tassels (there is a warning not to bring children and it should be heeded).

Jemma Kahn lifts a hammer over an apprehensive apple with googly eyes.
Unsettling … Jemma Kahn in We Didn’t Come to Hell for the Croissants. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian

Kahn places the ancient Japanese art of kamishibai (paper theatre) at the centre, inserting pictorial panels illustrated by herself, Carlos Amato and Rebecca Haysom into a wooden block around which each story revolves. The effect is dainty and captivating. Exquisitely performed by Kahn and deftly directed by Lindiwe Matshikiza, the show sometimes looks like knockabout cabaret, aiming to please with its winks and its smut; at other times it verges on BDSM.

Several of the tales (written by Kahn alongside Nicholas Spagnoletti, Justin Oswald, Tertius Kapp, Rosa Lyster and Lebogang Mogashoa) abide by a dream logic, with a swirl of dark, Freudian undercurrents. An indolent teenager is abandoned by his parents and his attempt to survive ends in disaster; a cat inherits her owner’s wealth but comes a cropper after trying to eat a “gold” fish; a stalker’s obsessive desire comes mixed with a love of linguistics. The stories are short but they burrow into the mind, their meanings just out of reach – as a dream might feel on waking.

There is also a lesbian coming-out story and a fantastic satire on an inspirational talk (“The Gentle Art of Enemy Maintenance”), espousing the joy of hating. It is funny but contains existential questions on the meaning of life and the (positive?) value of negative emotions.

There is something mildly shocking and heady about this mix, and about this show. It is all over too soon: we feel as though we have been thrown delicious after-dinner morsels and we want more.


Arifa Akbar

The GuardianTramp

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