Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Gastronauts at the Royal Court Theatre

'The future is flavoursome' Gastronauts at The Royal Court Theatre
A great dinner always has something of the theatre about it, as does a restaurant. The dance of the waiters, the choreography of chefs, the costumes of staff and the 'going out to dinner' outfits of the customers, the pantomime of who pays the bill, the special lighting, the background music as soundtrack, all contribute to the theatrical even farcical atmosphere. And the dramas, lets not forget them, both back and front of house. I've had tears, laughter, spanking, dancing, breaking up, snogging, boasting and confessions at my supper club over the years.
Since I started the pop up/supper club/ underground restaurant movement five years ago, the restaurant experience has become even more theatrical. These events are often site-specific, very visual, themed, with sets and props and front of house enacting a part, but with the added bonus of taste and smell. The emphasis should ultimately be on the food rather than the spectacle, although I have been to pop ups that get this wrong: dishes delayed and served cold because of a bit of dramatic business out front. Food is even more ephemeral than acting, food should always come first.
Many of my events have been like little theatrical productions, especially at Bestival, where I had costumes made, spent a long time on props and dressing the tent, and had my sister Imogen, who is a professional actor and musician, and particularly known for physical theatre, perform front of house. We'd like to do more of this.
A couple of years ago I worked with Punchdrunk, an 'immersive' theatre company which has had great success both here and in the States. As in a restaurant, the audience is not obliged to remain seated at all times, facing the same direction, but in a Punchdrunk production, they are positively encouraged to wander about and find their own narrative, for there are multiple storylines. Their latest production 'Drowned Man' in conjunction with the National Theatre, got rave reviews but caused some controversy within the acting world: two publicly-funded companies, paid for by taxpayers money, but the tickets were so expensive (£50 and a 'premium' £80) that the average-waged punter could not attend.
I was hired by Punchdrunk to 'act' as a hostess and cook at an Isle of Wight house. The audience would arrive and was supposed to believe that I lived there. The worst bit for me, as I'm not a professional actress, was having to pretend that I was married to another actor. We were supposed to be intimate and affectionate with each other. They even wanted us to stay in the same bedroom together overnight! This is when I realised the life of an actress is not all glamour. Imagine having to kiss and cuddle a complete stranger who you met the day before!
I could do the cooking and the hostessing but not the wifey bit. Frankly I was miscast. I was disappointed that, while Punchdrunk is known for set dressing, glamour and theatricality, I supposed to be a dowdy badly-dressed housewife. Soooo NOT me darlings. But I remain interested in performance and would like more opportunities.
This last weekend I went to see Gastronauts, a play at the Royal Court Theatre, which pretends to be a restaurant. You enter and sit down at a table of five, facing other members of the audience. This immediately changes the dynamic from one of passive receiver of performance to participant. You start to get to know your fellow audience members and even start to form a kind of team with the rest of your table.
Food and drink are also actors at this production: you are served good sourdough bread, olive oil and balsamic vinegar and salt, and good red wine. You can eat and drink. This is heaven for me as my mouth basically always likes to have something in it. (Being empty-mouthed for longer than 15 minutes means I'm asleep.) We are given soup plus an airline type tray of deceptive foods which look like one thing but taste of another. Clever.
There is a minor culinary shock towards the end of the meal which I will not reveal.
The actors, while enticing and skillful performers, were disappointingly cast as one type: all of similar ages and slim, missing a trick if we are talking about food. Just like on food TV, in the theatre everybody has to be conventionally attractive it seems. The actors served as waiters and performers, serving the food and playing out cameo scenarios, based on our dystopian food landscape. All the relevant food issues were touched upon: animal rights, greed, food as indicator of status, vegetarianism, extreme dieting. The playwrights, April de Angelis, Nessah Muthy and director Wils Wilson, have done their research and showed knowledge of what we in the foodie world talk about.
One of my favourite aspects of the production was the musical interludes, which were witty, melodic and well-performed, often in a bossa nova style. 
My only problem with visual theatre, is, as always, same with Punchdrunk stuff, the disconnected narrative, the lack of emotional involvement. I also felt they could have used the audience/customers more: you have an instant and unpredictable cast there, with all the repartee that could involve, but maybe that is too experimental for the Royal Court. You weren't allowed to tweet or instagram during the performance, again theatrical convention, but not terribly authentic for a current restaurant meal where people are busier photographing and hashtagging their food than eating it or talking to their fellow guests.
All in all, I definitely recommend going to see this interesting play. It's the price of a good meal with thought-provoking entertainment thrown in.

Gastronauts, on until the 21st of December

The Royal Court Theatre
Sloane Square, London

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