Friday, October 25, 2019

The Worst Café in the World – serving up forgotten memories in a fun-filled, shabby pop-up venue (Big Telly as part of #BIAF19)

Big Telly’s pop-up Cathedral Quarter venue reeked of shabby chic as I filed in and found a seat. The tiling is grim, the staff uniforms grubby: it truly could be The Worst Café in the World.

The creative team have established an intimate venue and the three well-established performers sparkle, very comfortable working among the audience, manoeuvring around them and revelling in the danger of the unexpected, ad-libbing around their comments. Some serious shade is thrown across the crowded diner as the staff interact.

The starters whet your appetite as the staff respond to your orders. Be careful what you ask for as Kevin (Keith Singleton) can certainly serve up a strip cheese, while you’re guaranteed to trigger some other surreal delights by Nina (Nicky Harley) and Maisie (Christina Nelson) as you learn to live with your choices. Vittoria Cafolla collaborated on the smart and sassy writing.


The revolving door into the unseen kitchen allows us to overhear the fraught conversations between the hardworking front-of-house team. There are many unexpected entrances and exits. Ryan Dawson Laight’s set is full of surprises and reused elements. Eleven speakers allow Garth MacConaghie’s soundscape to leak out of all kinds of nooks and crannies. Improvised lights cast spotlight key moments and cast beautiful shadows. Large scale effects are injected into the miniature venue.

The show’s menu metaphor continues with the sharing platter’s collective memories of supposedly Kodak moments that can so quickly turn into family nightmares. Beyond the initial silliness, director Zoe Seaton gradually darkens the mood as The Worst Café explores the concept of what happens if you make the management of memories transactional. Who would you delete from your recall? With resource in ‘The Cloud’ at a premium, which recollections will you keep and which will you dispose to the giant wastebasket forever.

But the dystopian vision is only beginning. The suggestion of a memory amnesty, with everyone in NI giving up memories of the Troubles, is pretty disturbing. This potent notion is somewhat left hanging, unresolved. But the thought sticks with you as we watch the tight catering team deal with their own forgetfulness.

As a piece of site-specific theatre, Big Telly’s The Worst Café in the World is full of surprises, entertains throughout, and leaves a memorable taste in the audience’s mouth that will keep them reflecting long after they escape the venue.

The Worst Café in the World is part of Belfast International Arts Festival and supported by Cathedral Quarter Trust. It’s a popular eaterie and all tables have been booked until Sunday 27 October, by which time the café team fully expect to have been chased out of Belfast by angry Scores on the Door inspectors. But they have plans to pop up in Armagh, Ballycastle, Lisburn and Newtownards in March.

Photo credit: Peter Nash

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