Food and circus, two of my favourite things.  So, when I heard Crashmat Collective were combining them both in their unique dining experience Façade, I got understandably excited…

George Fuller as restaurant owner Claude in Façade IMAGE: Jorge Lizalde
George Fuller as restaurant owner Claude in Façade IMAGE: Jorge Lizalde

Façade offers a three-course meal served exclusively by the company’s seven performers, whose characters are gradually revealed through their interaction with us and their relationships with the fictional restaurant setting of Claude’s.

Claude himself is played by George Fuller, who welcomes us at the door as maitre d’.  Our names are ticked off on the seating plan, and we are shown to our tables.  The Weston Studio in Wales Millennium Centre has been transformed, with 12 circular tables laid for dinner, each seating 9 or 10 and each with an extra ‘reserved’ seat which performers rotate in and out of as the show progresses.  I’m delighted with the large round badge I’m given that, by dint of its acrobatic image and colour scheme, denotes my menu requirements for the evening.  I’m charmed by attention to small details, and this show is full of these thoughtful touches.

The waiters take our drinks orders as the room is slowly seated, and we’re able to take in the witty name badges and individual personalities that will become further fleshed out over the course of the evening.  Assistant Manager Brice (Kevin McIntosh) introduces himself as our server, then leaves to fetch our drinks.  One of my table mates asks “Is he a real waiter?”

The strength of the Crashmat Collective concept, which could so easily slide into gimmick, is the level of realness that’s brought to the proceedings.  Yes, the team are all genuine waiters – for tonight at least; they are also skilled circus performers.  They’re not pretending to serve us our dinner, just as there is no trickery in the way bodies climb and dance upon their aerial equipment,  or bend, spin and balance around the room.  And we are real diners.

Alice Ellerby and the cast of Façade IMAGE: Inept Gravity
Alice Ellerby and the cast of Façade IMAGE: Inept Gravity

The script has been co-devised with award winning Associate Writer Alan Harris, and delivers comedy and a developing pathos in moments of interior monologue that, piece by piece, reveal the inner workings of our professional waiting staff.    Between the pre-recorded trains of thought is space for varying degrees of improvised interaction and fantasy choreography that allow us to enjoy our meal at an appropriate restaurant pace.

The food is very good, and has been prepared by the Wales Millennium Centre.  Each venue the show visits will be providing its own menu, specially created to match the Claude’s house style.  The performers are continuously in action no matter where you look, providing a phenomenal 360° experience and reinvigorating the trendy term ‘immersive theatre’.

Façade is, at its heart, a series of character studies, reminding us to look beneath the surface and consider the motivations and histories that everyone carries with them.  The circus techniques are illustrative of emotional states that build from each waiter’s circumstances over the course of their night at work.  An explosion of aerial straps from rigid Kade (Andy Davies) is a powerful evocation of war-time flashbacks; a jubilant Dirty Dancing inspired static cloud swing transforms self-conscious Rose (Alice Ellerby); Gemma Creasey, as Libby, uses the aerial hoop to transition from punk rebellion to the pain of an abandoned child and I find myself moved to tears at my table full of strangers (nor is this the only poignant moment).

These illustrations of internal passions are introduced by unsubtle blocks of coloured light and an abrupt snap from the ambient music of Tom Elstob‘s chill-out composition into recognisable chunks of pop-culture.  Don’t forget to look around you though, as the other waiters are adding to the moment in their own corners of the restaurant.  Sequences of ensemble choreography reveal more of each character’s mindset, all seated at different tables around the room.  The entrance of dessert is inspired.

Gemma Creasey as Libby IMAGE: Inept Gravity
Gemma Creasey as Libby IMAGE: Inept Gravity

Co-Directors Paul Evans and Anna Sandreuter have put together a masterful debut production, and I wonder how much of the cleverly crafted show may have been missed by diners who booked in groups and found themselves caught up in conversation and the ‘eating out’ part of the experience.   Façade is a production that offers as much or as little nuance as you’re willing to look for, and now I want to know what I would discover from Table 12, or Table 2, or Table 8.

As the evening shift comes to an end, the waiters contemplate life outside of Claude’s, and the dinner party finishes in elation and a party of paper napkins, coloured straws and confetti.  The joyful energy continues well after the performers have left the arena, and guests are tossing paper aeroplanes across the room and building a giant snake of drinking straws as I pay my drinks bill and head home. In my head echoes one of my table mates’ parting comment, “I’ll be so disappointed next time I go for a meal and it doesn’t have all this”.

Façade. By Crashmat Collective. Tour dates throughout Oct and Nov. http://www.crashmatcollective.com/tour-dates.html

** Review originally written for TheCircusDiaries.com **