Dinner and a Show: The Immersive Theatrical Dining Trend
These days, it seems that it's not enough to simply go for dinner or a night at the theatre. For decades, diners have been entertained by music and cabaret performances, but now, immersive dining experiences are increasingly offering something a bit different: a meal, along with an immersive theatrical performance, often around and with the diners themselves. It brings a whole new meaning to the phrase 'dinner and a show'.
It's a tricky thing to pull off well. Food is expected to be good, and ideally inspired by the story or venue. Scheduling must be exact to ensure food is on time and there aren't huge gaps between courses. The theatrical element must be entertaining and fluid and involve the audience, but not so much as to make people feel uncomfortable.
Although increasingly popular in the past few years, perhaps the first show of this kind was Faulty Towers, The Original Dining Experience, which has been running at venues across the world for many years. With 70% improvised, the show is always different. Interestingly, the show price includes a three-course dinner, but the website states that the food is a prop, rather than being a gourmet experience promised by other shows. The same Australian company is now also running Only Fools, The Cushty Dining Experience, based on an evening with Del Boy and the gang.
The Vaults in Waterloo has been hosting immersive dining experiences for years. Theatrical company Les Enfants Terribles produced the brilliant Dinner at the Twits in September 2016, based on the book by Roald Dahl. The show featured incredible detail and storytelling, combined with inventive food from Bompas & Parr - such as canapes served on nails rather than cocktail sticks, and bird pie complete with bird feet poking out of the top of the pastry.
The following year saw the decadent drag show Beauty and The Feast - run by Darling and Edge, which worked on immersive projects such as Gingerline and Alice's Adventures Underground.
Shotgun Carousel was there in September 2018 with their fantastic show Divine Proportions, reimagining the story of Dionysus, God of Pleasure and Mischief. Here a Bacchanalian evening, featuring burlesque and strip tease, combined with excellent food for a truly unique night out.
Back in 2017, Shamal Thakrar reversed the concept and launched the Kensington branch of Indian street food restaurant Dishoom with an immersive theatrical story, working with Ollie Jones and Clem Garritty of theatre company Swamp Studio. In the same year, Network in the National Theatre's Lyttelton had 42 diners eating their way through five courses onstage as the show unfolded around them.
Since then, the variety of shows has increased exponentially. In May last year, Funicular Productions opened the doors to their venue Pedley Street Station near Brick Lane in London - a fictional abandoned station where diners climb into an adapted train carriage to be fed and entertained. Current productions include The Murdér Express and Jewel of the Empire, and previous show Journey To The Underworld , which is returning in September.
Food is often clever and creative, and these productions frequently seem to be a new home for Masterchef finalists: Journey To The Underworld had food by Louisa Ellis, finalist from 2017 Masterchef: The Professionals, and a current immersive production of The Wind in the Willows by Scripts For Supper has superb food by Jacinta Hennessy, a 2016 Masterchef finalist.
However, quality is not guaranteed. These productions are often great fun, but do not always constitute brilliant or complex theatre, and some are shockingly bad. London Cabaret Club has been running for nearly six years. Set in the beautiful Bloomsbury Ballroom, expectations were high for last year's Queen Of Roses. Unfortunately, the show was lacklustre and inconsistent, and food was tasteless and frequently cold.
The other element of these experiences is that tables are rarely for two, so unless you go in a group, you're often sat with strangers with whom you must make polite conversation or possibly awkwardly ignore. Often the audience is up for a good time and happy to engage, but there is always a risk of your whole evening being marred by uncomfortable small talk with people you have nothing in common with.
The audience is usually part of the production in some way and so interaction with the cast is inevitable. This is not for everyone and can really jar with some people, even if the involvement is light-hearted and not forced.
Although these productions include food and entertainment, price varies massively. For a night like Dinner at the Twits, the food, entertainment and detailed immersive quality of the show justified the £86 ticket price. In contrast, the London Cabaret Club charges in excess of £100 a ticket, which is completely excessive for the poor quality of the show and food.
The buzz is already in motion for the upcoming Mamma Mia! The Party. At London's 02, the night will be set in Nikos's tavern and guests are promised a night of singing, dancing and a Mediterranean menu. However, tickets start from £150. For that price you might be expected to be serenaded by Cher herself, but time will tell if the show is worth forking out for.
Cheaper shows can be found; Scripts For Supper's whimsical The Wind in the Willows has adult tickets for £40 and Funicular Productions' Jewel of the Nile has tickets from £57, both of which are very good value for money.
This is a trend that doesn't seem to be going anywhere. So: be selective, go with an open mind (and empty stomach), and you might just have a brilliant night.
Photo Credit: Dewynters, London