“Whatever happened to class?”, wonders Mama Morton in Chicago, and goes on to lament, “Now no one even says oops/when they’re passing their gas”. She’s, of course, referring solely to matters of social etiquette, rather than the (not so) niceties of social division that are still perpetuated in Britain where your accent, dress, education and behavioural reflexes can all still be used in evidence against you.
And last night, the new show from the Olivier Award winning Duckie troupe put a delicious (in every sense) new spin on these notions, providing a dazzling and unique piece of “immersive” event theatre in which the audience chooses (according to price) which of three social groups to join, and are served food and entertainment appropriate to their choice of lower, middle or upper class.
The evening is called The Class Club, and you’re encouraged to move up, or down, a peg or two – “to strut it or slum it”, in the words of the publicity – and asked to dress for the occasion you’ve selected. Last was press night, and even the critics were asked to join in. Since I elected to go Upper Class, I dragged my dinner suit out of its mothballs (though I couldn’t go the whole way since I didn’t have a bow tie, but I had a freshly laundered white shirt, at least); somehow, I had two pairs of DJ trousers, and could still fit into one! When I arrived at the Barbican, the lovely in-house PR Angela Dias immediately exclaimed that she’d lost her bet: she was sure that the critics wouldn’t rise to the challenge of dressing the part. Some simply took the easy option and came as they were – i.e. middle class. For the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, the Guardian’s Lyn Gardner, and Time Out’s Rachel Halliburton, no change of clothes were therefore necessary.
But those in the upper and lower orders tried a bit harder. The Independent on Sunday’s Kate Bassett won the critics’ prize for the best get-up: she came tottering in on high heels (quickly installed in the ladies’ loo, and removed there afterwards before going home), tight top, and powder-pink baseball cap for a brilliant chav look. The Evening Standard’s Fiona Mountford, meanwhile, went the other way, dressing up in an elegant black dress that I both ungallantly and indelicately suggested could have gone either way: she was either upper class, or a working-class tart with aspirations. She was too classy to hit me, so she was obviously upper class! And Benedict Nightingale of The Times – who usually sports a crumpled and/or stained suit – dragged out his best winter suit, while The Observer’s Susannah Clapp was beautifully attired in what looked like a vintage dress.
The audience are duly ushered into one of three separate, privately curtained-off areas for a Christmas dinner – silver service waiters serving a salmon starter, then pheasant, sprouts and mash for the main course, topped off by Christmas pudding and cheese and biscuits for the upper class (£40); an organic menu for the middle-class (£25); and carvery for the lower-class (£14.99). The entertainment in each area is also bespoke – the waiters become operatic divas in upper class, while there’s a heavily shoulder-padded club singer, a drunken Father Christmas, and a boy rapper in working class. You get a sense of what’s happening in the other rooms from the soundscape that spills over between each area, giving you that irresistible sense of a great party literally happening somewhere else that’s tantalisingly just out of out-of-reach. A curtain is drawn back briefly between the elegant, chandeliered area of the long upper class dining area and the neon strip-lit working class area as the latter go to collect their food, and as they peer through the plastic glass between us, we’re suddenly in a goldfish bowl. And then gradually, as the curtains are drawn back, the three worlds collide – and the waiting staff (who also provide the entertainment in their own areas) spill into each other’s areas to see how they other half live.
I’m actually going to watch it from each of the other two points of view, too – I have booked (and paid!) to see it again in middle-class later this week, and lower-class in the New Year. Speaking to colleagues afterwards who had been in the other classes, I discovered that, far from being in their own comfort zone in the middle-class, this sounded like the most intimidating of all the areas. The working class seemed the most fun.
Duckie’s shows certainly repay revisiting. I loved their last Barbican show so much – C’est Barbican!, presented in 2003 and 2004 – that I went several times. It was a burlesque that wasn’t just unique every night, but unique to every table in the room: you ordered acts off a menu that were then performed at your table, as available. As well as a core group of performers, special guests were invited to add to the mix, and one night, an act that rejoices in the name of Boogaloo Stu was there. I got my table to agree to invite him to perform one of his acts “Boogaloo Stu Wanks for You” for us. It was exactly what it said on the label – he produced a giant dildo, covered the table in plastic sheeting, and proceeded to spray the table at the, er, climax of his act. When Duckie won the Olivier, I remember telling some incredulous industry-folk about this act, and I could tell no one quite believed me.
There’s nothing quite so shocking here. But this is a one-of-a-kind evening all the same: as Lady Mountford said to me, if only every night at the theatre could be like this. After all the pantos she has been enduring for the Standard, this must have come as a welcome adult alternative.