An Empty Plate in the Cafe du Grand Boeuf at the New End Theatre, Hampstead
Imagine the best restaurant in the world where you are the sole customer, a restaurant with no menu because whatever - absolutely anything - you crave is what the chef's cooking up tonight. A gastronomic paradise? Unless of course what you're craving is something beside culinary satisfaction. In which case the whole thing could turn out to be a nightmare. Which is exactly what happens in Michael Hollinger's bizarrely black comedy An Empty Plate in the Cafe du Grand Boeuf.
Victor Bullard (Mike Burnside) is a mega-rich, American newspaper baron whiling away his time in Paris. But while his fortune might buy him the luxury of a restaurant staffed only to serve his whims and all the exotic jaunts he and his Mademoiselle desire, it can't cure the impotency left by a long-ago case of mumps or the fact that he'll never be able to measure up to his macho idol, Ernest Hemingway.
Believing that he has been rejected by his girlfriend Louise (Melissa Riemer), Victor returns to the Café to recount his life story and starve himself to death. Enter the quirky assortment of restaurant staff who aren't about to let their employer die - let alone upstage them in the misery stakes. Maitre d' Claude (Steven Chance) and hostess Mimi (Kate Beerbohm) are locked in a passionless marriage; chef Gaston (Eugene Williams) nurses an unrequited love; and bus-boy Antoine (Euan Morton) suffers a stutter and the legacy of his musically gifted predecessor. No one's happy in life, they insist as they attempt to discourage Victor from his suicidal intentions.
The staff prepare a grand finale feast which they're sure Victor won't be able to resist. The condition is that none of the seven courses may be brought to the table; only empty plates while the real thing languishes in the kitchen. The descriptions of the succulent dishes, which drip seductively from the lips of Chance, make the mouth water and give the audience just the smallest tantalising taste of the characters' own longings.
Director Clive Perrott wrings the most out of this six-strong ensemble with universally strong performances and a black humour delivered so lightly you're never quite sure whether to laugh or gasp. The New End's intimate space is well exploited too - especially during the mesmerising bullfight - although the frenetic lighting changes make it seem smaller rather than deeper.
But this is only a tiny distraction. An Empty Plate is a fiendishly clever play in which every subtle foreshadowing is realised in the most unexpected but fulfilling manner. Even my companion, a self-confessed theatrical philistine, left rapturous. Oh, and that final delicious twist in the plot? It's a real killer.
Terri Paddock, February 1998