Producer: Big Telly Theatre Company
2019 Belfast International Arts Festival
You will not find on Trip Advisor any starred reviews of Big Telly’s little pop-up restaurant in Belfast’s Cotton Court. It doesn’t even make it into the Ones to Avoid list. There are no words to describe its awfulness.
As a piece of festival theatre, however, it is something else. The surprise element strikes the moment the door is opened into a dingy canteen, where a wise-cracking waitress bundles unsuspecting punters into their places.
Greasy menus are handed around but, thankfully, nothing edible is on offer, only a comprehensive selection of corny jokes and daft gags. Just as well, for who would wish to eat anything prepared in an unappetising kitchen, dished up by a trio of sweaty, unkempt servers, intent on bullying the clientele into having the time of their lives? No wonder some diners look shell-shocked at the reality of having paid good money to spend an hour in this terrible place.
Director Zoë Seaton is a dab hand at conjuring up other worlds in unexpected places. Here in the cultural hub that is the city’s Cathedral Quarter, within the stout stone walls of an old Victorian bonded warehouse, is a building replete with colourful history and unlikely stories. This madcap event hinges on the storing and sharing of stories.
In collaboration with writer Victoria Cafolla, Seaton’s narrative threads a dark vein of truth through what is, on the surface, an uproarious, nutty comedy. Creatively, it is a tricky combination to deliver effectively.
This busy, increasingly surreal production is blessed with a cast of experienced and fearless performers – Nicky Harley, Christina Nelson and Keith Singleton. As the mood changes, they unerringly throw the funny switch onto the revelation of deeply personal episodes, which might be more safely left hidden, stored in the mysterious i-cloud far away in the ether.
In an explosion of controlled physical theatre, these three overblown characters clown and climb their way through the nooks and crannies of the building, to the coughs and splutters and gasps of an audience engulfed in an excessive dose of dry ice. Beneath the bravado and excruciating humour lie three human lives, blighted by loss, personal tragedy and cruelty. When the laughter stops, the drama sets in and the effects are shocking.
The ever-inventive Garth MacConaghie supplies a rampaging pop-inspired soundscape, while Ryan Dawson Laight’s set and lighting design dazzles and darkens, before plunging proceedings into total chaos.
In spring The Worst Café will spring up in Ballycastle and Armagh, Newtownards and Lisburn, transforming slumbering spaces into the worst eating out experience imaginable. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.
Runs until 27 October.