When the Donmar Warehouse invited me to The Ivy, this was not what I expected.
“I’ve made it,” I thought. “Finally my hard work, theatrical acumen and journalistic brilliance have paid off. I shall be wined and dined at one of London’s most famous of theatrical celeb hangouts. Most probably Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber will toast my arrival.”
I’m not. He doesn’t.
With not a glass of finest Shiraz or a three-course meal in sight, what on earth am I doing at one of Theatreland’s top celebrity eateries at 11 o’clock on a Monday morning? Not getting a bacon sandwich for starters! I’m here to shadow Adam McNamara and Obioma Ugoala, two cast members of the Donmar Warehouse’s new show The Physicists.
Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s satire, staged at the pocket theatrical powerhouse in a new version by recent BAFTA winner Jack Thorne, is set in a high-class sanatorium, where Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein are among the patients. Being an illustrious institution, dinner is served in precisely the most correct fashion, which is why McNamara and Ugoala are here at The Ivy to learn from the best. I’m here to watch and drop hints about free food.
“The little micro-observations,” Ugoala tells me, “can be the difference between a very good show and an outstanding show.” While 95% of the audience might not know the difference between perfect silver service and the skilled blagging of an untrained waiter, these types of research trip give the actors more confidence to stride onto the stage safe in the knowledge that they know their stuff.
“It’s just the little grace notes that allow you to go on and perform that scene a little bit more professionally,” McNamara confirms. “Just knowing the little things like how we hold the cutlery, where to stand around the table, where you put the glasses…”
Indeed the morning is full of questions about precise napkin placement, correct bottle presentation, the worst thing a waiter can possibly do – spill onto a customer, since you were wondering – and the unspoken query, how can you come to The Ivy and not nibble on anything?
Tablecloths are smoothed; with the back of the hand, of course. Bottles of wine are opened; without even the hint of a pop as noise is not necessary. Symmetrical place settings are achieved; with ease by The Ivy’s patient staff and with a little more trepidation and questioning by the nervous McNamara and Ugoala.
With confidence slowly seeping back into their concerned faces as glasses are perfectly poised and knives neatened, the performers face their greatest test of the morning, as, incidentally, do I.
The man from The Ivy has a selection of poached poultry at the ready, its sweet, sweet scent drifting my way tantalisingly. He dismantles the first with the knife skills of a veteran surgeon, the entire bird swiftly becoming two chicken breast dinners complete with potatoes and greens.
McNamara shows the knife skills of a trainee surgeon who’s just worked a 36-hour shift to take one breast off the next offering, while Ugoala wields a blade like someone who’s watched 36 hours of Casualty as he removes the second with a little less finesse. I simply try not to lunge at the food, which all but winks at me from the table.
I’m being a little unfair, of course. It’s one thing to try silver service or chicken preparation in the comfort of your own home, it’s entirely another to do so under the noses of professionals while a hungry journalist takes pictures and attempts to control his rumbling stomach.
While a few more chickens might be needed to achieve carving perfection, I can see in the faces of McNamara and Ugoala the nuggets of information are building into a rounder understanding of their roles, and hear realisation and confidence building in their voices.
We won’t know how important this couple of hours will have been until the cast take to the stage at the Donmar Warehouse. The proof of the pudding, as they say, will be in the eating. Upsettingly there’s none of that happening here today.