Venue: Studio, Riverfront Theatre & Arts Centre
Directed by Paul Evans & Anna Sandreuter
Associate Writer: Alan Harris
It’s a very pleasant evening at Claude’s – the pop-up restaurant occupying the studio theatre of Newport’s Riverfront Arts Centre – and I’m tucking into a rather tasty main course of garlic chicken when a waitress asks the routine question, ‘Is everything okay with your meal?’ Before I can respond with an equally routine, ‘Yes, delicious!’ She has shimmied up a 15-foot pole and begun an aerialist act of elegance, poise and supreme athleticism. Restaurant owner Claude, a droll clownish figure played by George Fuller, mopes about his customers’ tables, rueing the fact that it’s been eight months since he last had sex, and suddenly his staff are striking up tableau-vivant scenes of erotic flirtation and titillation. Ambitious waiter Bryce (Kevin McIntosh) tries too hard to please when taking your drinks order, but he makes his displays of acrobatics seem effortless.
Hopefully, this thumbnail description of Crashmat Collective’s Façade provides some indication of the layers on which this show works – as part dining experience, part circus-skills floor act and part exploration of the division between the private and public personas of workers in the service industry. The success of the show wholly depends on the extent to which all these components are interwoven into a coherent piece of theatre that adds up to more than the sum of its parts, and Crashmat Collective triumphantly deliver on all counts.
Façade has been a project in development for quite some time, and many months of hard work are evident in a show that seamlessly blends the mechanics of restaurant service with the physical spectacle of circus, and a smart script from playwright Alan Harris, who has fashioned witty one-liners and wistful interior monologues in collaboration with a multi-skilled cast. The central conceit of Façade is that the banal chit-chat of waiting staff and their surface politeness are a professional mask that hides their latent desires and aspirations. These hidden longings are given expression in gravity-defying rope-work acts and gymnastic feats of balance and power. The characters are fleshed out in voiced-over back stories, although wisely no attempt is made to develop a narrative for the show, which would be unnecessary in any case as Façade is all about performance rather than story. The overall approach is playful rather than deeply insightful, but the interplay between private and personal worlds is done with real intelligence, and this raises Façade well above the level of the high concept dinner theatre experiences of the type you find in Orlando, Florida and Las Vegas.
As the company name suggests, Crashmat’s performance ethos is centred on ensemble playing, which is exemplary, but special mention should be made of co-director Anna Sandreuter, who is charismatic as the glamourous head-waitress Jolene, and Alice Ellerby, who is very effective as Rose, Jolene’s admiringly envious shadow. It seems like faint praise to mention just how well the cast perform as waiters, but it is crucial to the show that its audience of diners are fed at the appropriate times – and with food of such quality that the £27.50 ticket price seems a bargain. Façade has clearly been made with a lot of love and care, and the level of thought and preparation that goes into making it work so efficiently within its two-hour playing time is worth three Michelin stars.
An atmospheric lighting design from Adam Cobley and expert sound editing from Tom Elstob (who also composed the score) delineate the shifts from the ‘real world’ of Claude’s waiting staff to their ‘inner lives’ with clarity and economy. The production design by Buddug James Jones and Christina McConnell make a virtue of a limited budget with a set that is simple, unfussy and effectively suggestive.
Façade combines a good three-course meal with entertainment that is spectacular, occasionally very funny and sometimes thought-provoking. It also provides an intimate setting for circus acts that are usually performed in big-tops or big venues, and in doing so reframes traditional aerialist and acrobatic routines within refreshingly new contexts of character and setting. It is a show that takes full advantage of its hybridity of form to challenge not only our understanding of our restaurant experiences, but also our notions of what circus can do in terms of revealing and expressing character. I would think Façade would work especially well at the Edinburgh Festival, where its quirky humour and intense theatricality would secure plenty of word-of-mouth recommendations.
The waiters at Claude’s often repeat the phrase, ‘if you like us, then tell your friends’. Well Façade is a theatre-dining experience that I would certainly recommend to all. If eating a chocolate brownie with cream while watching the waitress who has just served it to you twist and twirl about on a rope a couple of metres above your head, fails to revive some of the childlike wonder that you experienced on your first visit to the circus then you are beyond hope.
Façade by Crashmat Collective is still on tour:
Thursday 30 Oct & Friday 31 Oct 2014
The Albany, London
Thursday 13 Nov & Friday 14 Nov 2014
Arts Depot London
Thursday 20th Nov, Friday 21st Nov & Saturday 22nd of Nov 2014
Wed 26th Nov & Thursday 27th Nov 2014