This autumn the critically acclaimed Table of Delights – a unique, interactive and hilarious food and theatre experience for kids – is heading to London. We talk to chef and co-founder, Claire Thomson, about singing dairy cows, making food education fun and why they’re now turning to crowdfunding to keep the project alive.
Eggs fired from cannons, a songstress cow named Barbara, two star-crossed beetroot lovers and ice cream churned by goggled chefs in clouds of dry ice. If it sounds like a home economics lesson taught by Spike Milligan and Vic Reeves you’d be along the right lines. But since opening in Bristol last year, the Table of Delights (a collaboration between two couples: two actors and two chefs, with 6 children among them) has enthralled and enchanted its young audiences, sold out two runs and garnered 5 star reviews.
“What we really didn’t want to do was some awful food education show with characters like Tommy the Tomato telling kids they must eat their seven a day,” explains Claire, the chef and Guardian columnist behind the brilliant family cookbook The 5 O’Clock Apron.
“We set out to create something bonkers. Think Monty Python meets Lauren Child meets Roald Dahl, with a bit of Horrible Histories thrown in. We wanted all this madcap crazy food to be thrown at the kids so that they come away feeling elated by what they’ve eaten rather than having been ‘educated’ or sat through a boring didactic food show.”
The show is unlike anything you’ve ever seen: 60 kids are seated around a ten-foot table, which extends out from the stage like a catwalk. (Accompanying parents sit around the edges overseeing, but staying out of, the action. Parents who want to get stuck in should book for the special evening performances, complete with wine).
The production, described as a ‘participatory picnic’, is served in five courses, spanning five acts, around five humble ingredients: bread, beetroot, milk, honey and spices. Each ingredient forms the basis of a field-to-fork narrative that is delivered as a frenetic, multi-sensory experience combining cooking, eating, drama, music and dance. Claire and her husband Matt (also a chef) cook live on stage during every performance and the children taste all the food – organic and locally sourced – as the show progresses.
Even picky eaters seem to be won over: “Food is such a great tool to use – the language, history and narrative of food are endless. The children are being enthused and entertained by it and they all happily eat things like beetroot and spices during the show. They are so immersed in the magic of it that we don’t get any of the ‘urgh I don’t want to eat that’. They want to be part of it.”
It’s clear the chaotic storytelling strikes a chord with kids, and there is never any shortage of volunteers to get up and help with the cooking during the show. From the star-crossed love story of beetroots Bert and Betty (who meet a grizzly end in a blender behind a white curtain in a cacophony of screams, and then reappear as beetroot jelly and beetroot chocolate cake), to the sequin adorned jazz-singing queen bee who shimmies along the table while delivering an ecological message about the fragility of our bee colonies, the performance is endlessly imaginative and very deliberately raucous. “We wanted the kids to feel like it was a bit anarchic”.
Under all of the theatre, though, the underlying ambition is very clear: to teach children about the provenance of their food, its importance and its journey to their plate but by getting them excited and intrigued by it, rather than lecturing: “It’s education, definitely. But it’s not serious or stale. It’s fun.”
Last year 17 schools – ranging from struggling inner city schools to elite boarding schools – organised KS2 trips to see the show during its run at the Bristol Old Vic and each was a triumph: “The brilliant thing was that no matter which school it was, they all got the same out of it. At the end we have them all dressed as bees with head boppers on and they conga out of the theatre. The difference between the children in terms of background was incredible – you couldn’t get a more diverse set of kids – but every single one of them behaved the same way. They were so enthused by it.”
According to food writer and school food plan pioneer, Henry Dimbleby, who took his own children to a Bristol performance, all schools should see it.
With processed food consumption and childhood obesity becoming a wide scale health and cultural issue in the UK, the project, with its focus on ‘real’ food, is a very timely one. But Claire believes that it’s imperative that we engage kids through focusing on the positive: “We want to promote and embrace the enjoyment of food, rather than further the negative ‘you can’t eat this or that’ approach. Food is increasingly demonised, which I think is wrong. Teaching our children that a little goes a long way and to enjoy everything in moderation is a much more sensible way to teach kids about food.”
It wouldn’t, however, be a true theatrical performance without a little (real-life) drama. After two years of Art Council funding, government cut backs meant that at the last minute the expected grant for this year didn’t materialise, leaving the venue booked, the actors raring to go and a significant cash shortfall.
Given the successful run to date and the positive impact it’s had on the children who have participated, the production team are determined that the show must go on and are seeking to raise the money themselves through crowd funding. The campaign launched last week and donations (which start at £10) attract a range of great incentives, from signed copies of Claire’s book and show CDs through to the opportunity to don some whites and get up on stage yourself (or have Claire and Matt cook a dinner party at your home, if you’re less of an exhibitionist).
Claire’s passion for the project is palpable. “We know the children of London will love the show; Bristol’s kids certainly did. Not getting the majority of the Art Council funding at the last minute was a setback but all is not lost. If we can raise some money through crowd funding and secure as many advance ticket sales as possible, we feel confident that this heartfelt and necessary show will go ahead.”
We’ve joined the crowd funders and are looking forward to both the kids and the adults evening shows. If nothing else, we need to find out how beetroots fall in love. We’re certainly hoping that the show does go on.The Table of Delights is a co-production between the Print Room at the Coronet and Theatre Damfino and will (hopefully) be running from 23 November to 13 December. Matinee shows on Saturday and Sunday at 3pm and early evening family shows at 6pm (Thurs-Sun). It is recommended for children aged 6+ but younger children have happily attended the matinee performances. Tickets can be purchased here.
The crowdfunding campaign closes on 9 October and more details, along with a short video preview of the show, can be found on their Crowdfunder page.