'I hope people get a night they never forget' - Jan Versweyveld on why there's an onstage restaurant in the National Theatre's Network
Food is an integral part of the theatregoing experience, whether it be a nice meal with friends pre-show, or scoffing a sandwich from Pret minutes before curtain up (we've all done that). But if you happen to have a ticket for Network at the National Theatre, you'll witness something a tad more unique onstage in the Lyttelton.
Lee Hall's much-awaited adaptation of the 1970s film about a news anchor who is fired after crumbling ratings opens in the Lyttelton, and with the London stage debut of Breaking Bad actor Bryan Cranston, it's an event in itself. But 42 lucky diners will be treated to a lavish five-course meal served onstage during the performance, it will be as immersive as theatre gets.
Dinner theatre is nothing new - notably, Les Enfant Terribles' Roald Dahl-inspired Dinner at the Twits recently ran at The Vaults - but serving 3,000 diners over the course of the run on the National's second-biggest stage, Foodwork does it on an unprecedented scale.
It's the brainchild of designer Jan Versweyveld, who tells me he pursued the idea for three key reasons.
"The script has 37 different scenes in different locations," he explains, "but they can be divided into three different situations: the broadcast studio, the office environment, and the social environments." Each of these environments have a different section of the stage, with the restaurant (and fully-functioning kitchen) located stage left.
"During the bar and restaurant scenes, we thought it would be silly to put a table alone on stage with a waiter, so we fantasised about having more people on stage and a restaurant to give a believable background for the characters' social lives."
That was just an idea he and director Ivo van Hove considered, but as their vision of the production became clearer, it was an idea they pursued as they looked to make Network "more of a 'happening' than just a well-made theatre play".
"The idea was strengthened by the idea that many TV shows in the US and UK have a live audience. The play's audience in the circle and the stalls can see the audience on stage watching the play and see how they react. These reasons made us think, 'we're going to go for it, it's probably a good idea'".
After floating the initial idea past the National - which he admits he thought was "going to make them fall off their chairs" - he assembled a team to move the idea forward. This included deputy production manager Antony Newton (who Versweyveld describes as "one of the best people in the world"), and George Cardwell, director of catering at the National.
"We really wanted to create something that was authentic", says Cardwell, "it had to feel like a restaurant, rather than an event". Cardwell is in charge of all three restaurants at the building, as well as the various bars and cafes, but he admits, Foodwork "is a big thing".
"It is a real restaurant. The people are eating in it are real customers, and are being served by proper chefs and waiting staff. The whole thing was about giving people more than they expected." Working with Versweyveld for over a year from idea to previews, you get an idea of the attention to detail that went into delivering the experience.
"We looked at how the play was based on a film that was set in the '70s, and developed the menu to complement that. If you asked somebody to name a dish that reminded them of the seventies, 'prawn cocktail' is usually the first answer, so we looked at how to make those dishes more contemporary without taking away from the heritage. We also spent a lot of time with Jan thinking about how the crockery, cutlery, glassware would look.
"The quality of what we were producing was what Jan wanted, he had a clear idea of it being a fine dining restaurant."
Of course things go wrong in restaurants at the best of times: a smashed glass here, a dropped plate there. Are there plans for if this happens in front of a sold-out Lyttelton auditorium?
"We have said to the staff 'if you drop a glass, feel free to walk off into the wings and we'll let somebody else deal with it' to avoid that red-faced embarrassment."
Despite losing out on the ballot (there were 6,000 entries for 1,600 pairs of tickets), I was lucky enough to secure a place at the bar during previews via the National's website. After accessing the stage via a dedicated side entrance to the theatre, we were led onto the stage by a waitress who told us we were free to wander the stage and take photos around the empty auditorium before the audience arrived. During this time, we were served our pre-starter (butternut squash) and starter (the crab cocktail) accompanied by a specially-concocted bourbon-based cocktail (aptly named the 'Mad as Hell').
As the show began, I watched from my seat (right at the back of the stage) as the play unfolded. It literally gives you a totally different perspective of the play; at one point, Max Schumacher (Douglas Henshall) watered down his rage with a whiskey at my table.
But it wasn't just what was happening on stage that made it feel special: never have I heard the laughter and gasps of a National Theatre audience from the stage as a performer (and I probably never will again). Yet I was unable to see them through the stage lights, and felt comfortable tucking into a delicious short rib and ox cheek bourguignon during one of the scenes.
Foodwork operates as a restaurant above-all. I had no qualms about being a nuisance when ordering a drink during a scene, though it was also a thoroughly satisfying way to experience the play (and what a play).
Versweyveld and van Hove are regular collaborators, as well as partners, and they're not the kind of team to shy away from a challenge like this (in Roman Tragedies, the audience were allowed to roam the stage freely throughout the 6-hour production), but the designer admits they've never done anything like this. Part of the reason they could pull it off was the fact this play was happening here, in London, at the National.
"[The National Theatre] is something the UK can be proud of", Versweyveld beams as we sit in its bustling foyer. "I feel very at home. It would be very scary anywhere else in the world, but it was like a soft ride."
He tells me, "I hope the diners will have a night they never forget for the rest of their lives". I assure him, we do.
Network is at the National Theatre until 24th March 2018. Tickets are sold out, but day seats and tickets via Friday Rush are available. Foodwork tickets are also sold out, but the full menu is available in the National Theatre's resturants post-show.
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