Before there was Holiday at the Elbow Room Café, there was a dinner, presumably at a restaurant where the staff isn’t allowed to abuse the customers and no one suggests you get your own goddamn coffee when it’s time for a refill. Writer Dave Deveau recalls being asked out by Cultch executive director Heather Redfern and marketing director Nicole McLuckie. The company was looking to fill a slot during the holiday season, and both women happened to be big fans of Elbow Room Café: The Musical, which saw Zee Zee Theatre’s Deveau and his director-husband, Cameron Mackenzie, partner up to pay tribute to one of Vancouver’s most beloved—and fabulously bitchy—institutions.
“They said that they were looking to develop a thing that is of Vancouver, for Vancouver, hilarious and heartwarming, and specifically for adults—not a family show,” Deveau reports, on the line from his Vancouver home. “I said, ‘Are you saying we should do the Elbow Room again?’ It’s funny—I think that was actually their idea. But they very strategically let me think that it was my idea.”
After mulling it over, Deveau and Mackenzie decided that maybe there was another musical chapter to the 2017 show that (along with Anton Lipovetsky) they wrote as a tribute to both the Elbow Room and its married owners, Patrick Savoie and Bryan Searle.
As anyone who ever received a tongue-lashing for requesting extra-crispy bacon knows, the restaurant was as famous for its staff as its menu. The motto at the Elbow Room, which started out on Jervis and then moved to Davie, was “Food and service is our name, but abuse is our game.” Wickedly sharp-tongued, Savoie and Searle didn’t suffers fools—or anyone else—gladly, which meant that a stream of good-natured insults was served to each visitor.
That made the LGBTQ–friendly Elbow Room a mecca for both its entertainment value and its food. Add the fact that Deveau and Mackenzie were friends with Savoie and Searle, and it’s no surprise that the playwrights wanted the story to continue.
Holiday at the Elbow Room Café—featuring a brand-new book and a side of new songs—sets a cast of five in the restaurant on Christmas Eve, when a massive snowstorm hits Vancouver.
“We knew that we wanted to capitalize on some of our favourite songs from the last one, and then amplify it with some holiday tunes that I could write Elbow Room–specific lyrics for,” Deveau says. “It was a beautiful thing, knowing that I would have Patrick and Bryan at the centre of it, but figuring out who from the old musical would return, and which new characters I would add to the mix.”
The new musical is geared to both those who love the holidays and those who miss the Elbow Room, which Savoie closed in 2018 after Searle’s death a year earlier. And like the eatery’s best brunches and lunches, when the insults, off-colour comments, and four-letter words were flying, Holiday at the Elbow Room Café is definitely not for those without a sense of humour.
“It’s quite lewd, frankly,” Deveau says with a laugh. “There’s a lot of dick jokes in it. It’s everything you need for the holidays.”
And in the event you need more than dick jokes, Holiday at the Elbow Room Café also serves up something substantial, which is appropriate considering everything Savoie and Searle did for Vancouver’s LGBTQ community. “It’s pretty heartfelt,” Deveau says. “People are going to laugh a lot, but by the end I think they’re going to be moved.”
Holiday at the Elbow Room Café plays the Cultch Historic Theatre from December 10 to 29.