Vanity Bites Back

Welcome to Jill’s cookery show! Well, technically it’s a pilot, but let’s be honest, it’s going to be a sure-fire hit. After her latest efforts to launch a TV career went south (turns out people didn’t go nuts for the daytime talk show about Islamabad) Jill is determined to become the new Nigella. She has just the cheesecake recipe to do it as well. It’s going to be perfect.

Creating the cheesecake with Jill is an often hilarious experience, though it is a slow-burner

Something’s not quite right though. It’s more than just the innumerable tech issues caused by the sexually empowered Glen (who’s doing work experience). Cracks are beginning to appear in Jill’s pristine façade. She’s talking for just too long about the biscuit culture in her office, just too long about dinner with her partner, just too long about her outing to buy some particularly hip falafel. As a result, her cooking show isn’t perfect - but then again, nothing can be.

As clown cookery comedies about anorexia go, you’ll struggle to find much better. Helen Duff gives a powerhouse performance as the perfect host of an event which puts a lot of faith in its audience. The show is based on her real-life struggle with anorexia; Duff has cooked up Jill as a comedy surrogate, fusing together clowning techniques and her unique experience in order to embody this endearingly off-kilter character. Mixing a dash of crowd-based improvisation with some ones she made earlier, the way Jill addresses her studio audience is on the surface very pleasant, but there is a bite beneath everything she says. Throughout the show this acts as a powerful reflection of how people with anorexia are subtly accosted by people who try to push past mental illness under the guise of caring, without fully appreciating the ramifications of their words.

Creating the cheesecake with Jill is an often hilarious experience, though it is a slow-burner and there are definite lulls caused by the lack of pace, particularly as filming begins. The success of the hour undoubtedly comes from the way it channels all the important and insightful things it has to say about the eating disorder through comedy. It’s a bold way of tackling taboo subject matter and one which could spoil in so many ways. With Duff’s skill in the kitchen, it never does.

At its core, Vanity Bites Back is about self-worth and the feeling that we cannot give the world what we think it deserves from us. In the heartbreaking conclusion, the line between character and creator is blurred as Duff nails the final gut punch, breaking Jill down and exposing the darkness inside her mind for all to see. Once the cameras were off, the audience were compelled to their feet. This was not because the show was perfect, but because Helen Duff, in an act of unremitting bravery, had bared her soul, enriching all our lives in the process.

Reviews by Joe Christie

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Performances

Location

The Blurb

Helen's been trying to find her funny bone. Not an easy task when they all stick out at once. A play about anorexia and attention seeking from a (recovered) anorexic (unabashed) attention seeker finding the freedom to bite back. ‘One to watch’ (Spectator). ‘Duff's performance is enthralling... highly intelligent’ (Time Out). ’Superbly played’ (Times).