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Published 29 November 2013

Ever fancied visiting a restaurant on a spaceship where nothing is what it seems and all comes with a side order of meaning and emotion? Welcome to Gastronauts.

Cooked up from an idea that emerged during the summer’s Open Court season when playwrights roamed free range around the Royal Court, Gastronauts is a theatrical experience like no other. Part meal, part cabaret, part drama, part panto, and lasting as long as it takes to bake a loaf of bread, it delves into our mixed relationship with food in its many facets and guises.

Of course, that topic is so vast and varied that the Gastronauts experience is more akin to enjoying a superbly crafted dramatic tasting menu, offering tasty morsels that dwell on evocative food memories and the future of ‘mini livestock’, than getting stuck into a big meaty steak of a play.

Play is almost as important to Gastronauts as food. There is enough playfulness in the evening’s consumables to make Willy Wonka take a moment out of entertaining audiences at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane to give a little whoop of excitement.

I’m sure such treats would be considered passé to Blumenthal regulars, but from the moment the audience is led into the space age departure lounge, with its waiting shot glasses of invitingly coloured liquids and its Alice In Wonderland-esque invitation to drink, there is the feeling that you can and will be tricked at every turn.

In much of the show’s message there is something of preaching to the converted. Without wanting to make too many assumptions, most of the show’s audience will know that mass produced bread has more than a few additives and fungicides on its ingredients list and that intensive beef farming may not be great for the environment. If they’re anything like me, they’ll spend time each week trying to balance conscience against available cash and attempting to ignore the implications of their shopping habits.

Still, it never hurts to be reminded, especially when that reminder comes from barbershopping bovines.

It’s fitting too that Gastronauts is such a communal experience, the audience sharing tables and food, and playing with the quintet of performers who take all in their stride. Both food and theatre are at their best when shared.

Yet even that comes under the Gastronauts microscope. When the desperate eyes of Imogen Doel, who has just topped a cupcake, fall on the punter chosen to receive her gift it’s like watching Great British Bake Off from inches away. Love me, they say. Love my food.

That is all I will say of the culinary delights involved, so as not to rob anyone of the joy of discovery. Some are playful, some evocative, but each comes with a dramatic accompaniment, be it religious praise – pain-is angelicus? – or the threat of food riots.

Maybe, of course, the drama comes with food on the side. Does it matter? Probably not. It’s just that Gastronauts puts so much on your theatrical plate that on occasions it makes focussing a challenge. So, at the end, like when I last over-prepared a loaf of bread, I kneaded it a second time.


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