Brighton Fringe 2014
Have you ever eaten a ‘Tasting Menu’? That’s where the restaurant offers small portions of a number of dishes as a single meal. You get glimpses of what’s on offer, but without the commitment, and possibly without the pleasure, of eating a full course of any one thing. TIPS had that feel. Intriguing morsels from the lives of the restaurant staff at ‘Ciao’, but without the satisfaction of chewing on a solid lump of something more meaty.
The setting was brilliant, though. As we entered the basement space at Brighton Media Centre we were welcomed by Diane. Tall and slim, with blonde hair cut crisply short and dressed in a smart white blouse and immaculate black trousers, she was the Manager at ‘Ciao’, and asked us to wait to be seated at our table. We were a Christmas party group, it seemed, and a number of tables had been moved together into an elongated U shape, dressed with red tablecloths and menu cards ready for us.
The room we were in is the Photographic Studio, which has a large white-painted alcove at one side – curved where the floor meets the walls so that it produces a seamless white background for photography – an ‘infinity cove’. This was brightly lit and they used it as the kitchen and bar area of the restaurant, while our table was in the black-walled main part of the studio, with much dimmer, more intimate illumination, as befits Ciao’s actual dining area.
We talk a lot about the ‘fourth wall’ in theatre – how the audience peer across the front of the stage, or through an actual proscenium arch, to view the unfolding drama from outside. From Brecht onwards, directors have tried to break through and interact more closely with the audience. In TIPS, director Rachel Guershon and Rayosunshine Productions demolished the fourth wall completely – we could watch proceedings in the kitchen and bar, but we were still intimately part of the action as the waiting staff brought us our meals and drinks.
There was no actual food in the show. Everything was mimed, and when we were seated and served drinks we were handed empty glasses, and asked to order our meals from a blank menu – we had to act, too. But it worked – it felt like a real restaurant as the waiting staff in their red T shirts (Ciao logos on the front in green, of course) joked with us a little, and handed out crackers, as it was a Christmas do. (I have to report that mine didn’t make a bang and my paper hat wasn’t glued properly so I couldn’t wear it …)
An authentic feel – and of course we could see across into the kitchen, where the staff were gossiping and an obviously unhappy chef was crashing plates around. There were six of them in the kitchen – the chef, an eastern European man in his forties, a barman, possibly in his early thirties and also foreign, and four waiters in their early twenties. Oblivious to the customers outside in the restaurant, the younger staff gave us snippets of their lives as they chatted about their relationships and grumbled about their working conditions.
But there were too many characters for us to connect with all at once. Two men, three women, all speaking quite quickly – about an absent colleague with a sexually transmitted infection; about failing an audition for a dance school; about whether the restaurant is going to avoid closure… All the usual banter of people working together, and all possibly relevant to the story, but following it was like trying to pick up snatches of conversation from a neighbouring restaurant table. It got easier, of course – after a while we could distinguish them one from another, though some names were still hard to make out and I was glad of the programme later.
But in the time available – the whole piece lasts just forty-five minutes – we got only tantalising slivers of what seemed to be an interesting set of lives. At the end, I wanted to know more about Abbie’s relationship with her sister Grace, and her romance with Ben the barman, and the problems the girls had with their father when his wife died. After all, I’d watched Abbie, Grace and Ben for three quarters of an hour and I had started to know them.
It was the same with Diane the Manager, who it turned out was a single mother with a four-year-old daughter. The staff were shocked when that fact was revealed, and so were we, but I wanted to know more: Diane had seemed so much in control but – "I can’t afford to buy her the bike she wants for Christmas". A lot of the action had Diane (beautifully played by Esmé Patey-Ford) trying to motivate her unenthusiastic team. The restaurant is obviously not doing well – close to closure – but Diane’s energy is dissipated on problems like waiter Ant snaffling ravioli off a plate before it goes out to the customer.
The central storyline of the play concerns the theft of the jar of customers’ tips – nearly three hundred pounds – and how the staff react to the situation. Will Diane be able to deal with her staff’s anger? Will the culprit confess? Will the whole team be fired? Csaba the chef was a detective back in Hungary, and he can see things that the others have missed…
The play as a whole tackles a number of themes – The lack of job satisfaction in restaurant work, the pressures on managers to meet targets, the trials of being a single parent, and of course the difficulties of being a foreigner – both Csaba and Ben have migrated to find work, and Csaba has left his own four-year-old back in eastern Europe. All fascinating subjects, and cleverly woven into the story, but none of them is examined in enough depth and I wanted to hear more about all of them.
Rachel Guershon and her sister Sarah wrote TIPS together, and they’ve created some great characters who certainly caught our imagination and our sympathy. But they haven’t developed them very far, and that seems to me to be a waste. Rachel is a superb actress – I saw her in ‘Betsy’ last year where she was unforgettable as a 19th century Brighton prostitute. Here, she plays Grace (Sarah plays Abbie), and as well as the writing, she has directed the piece.
Sometimes a director can be too close to the material, especially if they’ve also written it. If they know all the dialogue and the back stories of the characters, it may not be obvious to them that an audience, starting from scratch, will find it hard to keep up. An outside eye might have helped.
But for all that, this is still a production that is well worth seeing. The staging is imaginative and very confident and the actors are engaging and believable. I would like to see TIPS again, but with the dialogue run a bit slower and the play extended to well over an hour, so that the characters and themes could be explored in greater depth. This is a restaurant, remember, and I don’t want just four pieces of ravioli – I want an entire plateful.