Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Theatre review: Gastronauts

Dinner and a show, although which is which isn't clear in the Royal Court's Gastronauts from writers April De Angelis and Nessah Muthy, and director Wils Wilson. In a "departure lounge" in the Jerwood Upstairs, the audience is encouraged to choose from fluorescent drinks in shot glasses - though if the one I chose was anything to go by they weren't alcoholic but fruit and vegetable juices, I couldn't put my finger on what mine was but it tasted familiar - before going into an area set up with restaurant tables. Andy Clark, Imogen Doel, Nathaniel Martello-White and Justine Mitchell are flight attendants serving us, with Alasdair Macrae as the captain providing music and narration. In between performing short scenes about food, the significance it takes in our lives and the price - not just financial - of it, the cast also encourage the audience to try out some interesting food samples, all with a story to tell.

So, variously over the course of the evening, Mitchell is an advertising exec helping sell a dodgy slimming product; and later a grieving mother finding comfort in baking. Martello-White is set up on a blind date with Clark, as a banker who both makes his money by screwing over small farmers, and also has a food fetish. And Doel bakes a loaf of bread that's ready by the end of the show.

The idea is to make us think more about the food we eat every day, but that's about as far as the show's theme can be pinned down. Like the design that can't decide whether we're on a flight or in a restaurant, the topics vary from the exploitation of Third-World food producers to eating disorders, horse-meat lasagne to artificial additives. Most of the facts we're presented with are far from comforting, but neither are they remotely new to the kind of person who would go to the Royal Court in the first place; so the constantly hammered-home fact that this is An Issues Show never resolves itself into what the point actually is.

Gastronauts' USP is of course the fact that it serves up food to the audience; mostly only bite-sized tastings but it all adds up enough that I didn't need to eat anything else afterwards. On the homelier end of things we have lentil soup as a character reminisces about his grandma; the publicity suggests the food might be offputting to some but the most adventurous end of the scale involves crickets, in a scene where the cows remind us how much harm their farming does to the environment, and how eating insects might be the protein source of the future. The audience is assured that you don't have to eat anything you don't want to, but nobody on my table turned down the crickets - both varieties tasted all right to me, as did the biscuits made with cricket-flour, which just tasted like regular shortbread. Judging by how many were left on people's plates, I liked the "backwards" profiteroles more than most did; ironically the final treat piece of chocolate was probably my least favourite, but then I don't like dark chocolate. The pear and vanilla cake was great though.

The food is interesting if not quite as much of a headfuck as the publicity might suggest, and the cast seem to be having a lot of fun that's infectious - although I couldn't help thinking designer Lizzie Clachan was deliberately trying to make Nathaniel Martello-White have a wardrobe malfunction: I know he's pretty but if you're that desperate to see his bum maybe just ask him, the poor man spent half his time trying to stop his tracksuit bottoms falling off. But I really did keep wishing De Angelis, Muthy and Wilson had found something to focus on more specifically within the food theme, instead the show just touches briefly on the surface of numerous issues. I like to go into a show with as little preconception as possible, so going into Gastronauts all I knew was it was about "something something something food;" unfortunately I couldn't have summed it up any differently after seeing it either.

Gastronauts by April De Angelis, Nessah Muthy and Wils Wilson is booking until the 21st of December at the Royal Court's Jerwood Theatre Upstairs.

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes straight through.

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