April De Angelis, Nessah Muthy and Wils Wilson's ''Gastronauts'' opened at the Royal Court last night (28 November 2013)
You can forget about your interval ice cream. How about a deep-fried locust in sweet chilli sauce instead? Charred cricket in sea salt? Or maybe just a nice friendly egg mayo sandwich? Nom nom nom. Oh. That was unexpected.
Gastronauts is a culinary cabaret comprised of songs, sketches and canapés. The Royal Court's upstairs studio has become a pop-up restaurant and its staff, led by mischievous maitre d' Alisdair Macrae, are on hand to dish up a few home truths about the food on our plates. Tuck into that artisan bread and you'll hear about the trans-fats and preservatives pumped into your everyday loaf. Plump for the veggie option and you'll get a punchy little lecture on carcinogenic pesticides. There's a cheery close harmony number about impending food crises, while several sketches skewer the industry's exploitation of both producers and consumers. Almost every nibble leaves you nobbled.
There are some brilliant little surprises on Tim Jenner's menu and – as in theatre – nothing is quite what it seems. The tricks will be familiar to television foodies – be it from Heston's fine dining or I'm A Celebrity's jungle cuisine – but they're still delightful experiences. Lurid liquids trigger guessing games. Chocolates tell stories. Profiteroles come with punchlines. The playful jocularity is carried into the content and a game ensemble work hard to create a spirited atmosphere.
However, Gastronauts is a tasting menu in more ways than one and this devised piece – led by director Wils Wilson and the playwrights April De Angelis and Nessah Muthy – is driven by dilettantism. In a way, it gets greedy, trying to make every possible point about the way we eat. It touches on anorexia, memory and the symbolism of food, as well as the wider ecology and economy of its production. As such, it often ends up scratching surfaces and you can practically see the initial spider diagram.
It's best when it leaves a bitter taste behind – and I'm not talking about the insects. (They're not unpleasant, but the future might not be as flavoursome as Macrae's dinky ditties claim.) Gastronauts turns on its audience by flagging up deep-set social – and global – inequities. For some, food is sustenance. For others, it's sensation. As our tastebuds tingle, we're reminded that our waiter-actors aren't eating and, moreover, that there are queues outside foodbanks across the country.
Paradoxically, though, in smartly flagging up its own economic context, Gastronauts almost fatally undermines itself. It critiques the decadence of dining even as it relishes in providing it and there's a sense that Gastronauts wants to have its cake and eat it. Maybe that's why it never quite hits you in the gut.