It’s a Wednesday evening and I’m enjoying a Portland crab cocktail at a fancy London restaurant. Unusually, there is no background noise of excited chatter or clinking glasses from fellow diners. We are all hushed, listening intently as – just beyond the next table – Bryan Cranston is threatening to kill himself.
I’m dining at the National Theatre, but not at its House restaurant or the Kitchen Cafe. Instead, I am quietly munching through my fish starter on the Lyttelton as part of that night’s performance of Network in front of nearly 900 punters.
Director Ivo Van Hove is fond of a bell and whistle in his productions. His adaptation of the 1976 satirical film about television news has multiple big screens blazing, smartphone footage, and onstage camera people weaving through the action inside and outside the theatre.
The biggest gimmick, though, is Foodwork, the show’s onstage restaurant that serves a five-course meal to around 40 diners throughout the play. So after securing a ticket through the theatre’s ballot at a cost of £75, including the meal, I was to make my debut onstage at the National.
‘What if I was too busy crunching through a breadstick to hear the most crucial line?’
We were told to arrive 45 minutes before curtain up at a marked side door of the Lyttelton. The dress code was dark clothes only and we were warned that we would be visible to the main audience at all times of the performance.
I had a nagging doubt. Things get pretty dark, pretty quickly for Cranston’s messianic news anchor Howard Beale. Wouldn’t digesting five courses of fine dining get in the way of digesting the performances, text and nuance of the production?
What if I was too busy crunching through a breadstick to hear the most crucial line? What if I didn’t clock a major visual clue because I was cutting up a piece of butternut squash?
Before the main doors opened we were allowed 30 minutes to roam around the set and take selfies. If there’s anything to be learnt from being this close to Jan Versweyveld’s gleaming set, it’s that he should design more restaurants.
As we were ushered to our tables, the auditorium started to fill up and attention turned to the impending performance, I still half expected only one of the food or the play to win out.
As the lights went down, it became harder to see beyond anyone in the front row, and easy to forget that you are being scrutinised from the stalls. It occurred to me that it was a privileged view, that very few see. Not just being so close to the action, but being as close to a performer’s-eye view – looking out into a full auditorium – as we mere mortals are likely to get.
‘I started taking quick, short bites so I could return my gaze to the action as rapidly as possible’
Van Hove’s mile-a-minute production made it hard enough to know where to look at the best of times, but then perhaps that was the point.
Add to the action the merry-go-round of plates, the occasional touch on the shoulder to ask whether madam would like a squirt of gin on her sorbet, or some sparkling water, and the result is an extended rally of focus, pinging back and forth.
During a more pedestrian scene I found myself transfixed by a nearby bartender delicately transferring ice cubes one-by-one into a glass so as not to make a sound. He then proceeded to slice a lemon with an almost baffling amount of concentration in an attempt not to draw attention. It didn’t work.
When the piece was at its best, and Cranston at his most furious, Network was searing, heart-in-your-mouth stuff, impossible to take your eyes off. I started taking quick, short bites so I could return my gaze to the action as rapidly as possible. Clearly not everyone had the same tactic. At one stage I found I was the only one still eating my main course – a surprisingly good, beef short rib.
In fact, the entire five-course menu was far better than could reasonably be expected from the bootleg kitchen that is set up in a back corner of the stage. All courses were prepared there and lined up neatly for the opportune moment when the team of waiting staff swoop in to begin service. It was, unsurprisingly, expertly choreographed – stylish, precise, very Van Hove.
‘Henshall and Michelle Dockery vigorously going at it on the chair of a nearby table, was more awkward’
The £75 price tag included a glass of wine, but particularly thirsty patrons were topped up at will with the waiters keeping a tally of the amount to be paid at the end. And at two hours with no interval, several of my fellow diners needed to relieve themselves before the end of the play, perhaps the result of too many top-ups. Rather than having to hold on, they raised their hands and were stealthily ushered from the stage and then back to their seat with little disruption.
Foodwork is billed as an ‘immersive dining experience’, and there were a couple of moments, during scenes set in a bar or restaurant, that feel more traditionally ‘immersive’. Cranston and Douglas Henshall sipping on a whisky, leaning on the same bar at which we are enjoying the house cocktail, was satisfying. Henshall and Michelle Dockery vigorously going at it on the chair of a nearby table, was more awkward.
For the most part, the diners are just pawns in Van Hove’s creation. We are always in view, and as Cranston rages on in front of us, we become the voyeuristic masses, the insatiable consumers of this media spectacle. We just happen to have been among the lucky few to have a good feed along the way.