What’s the chicken and what’s the egg down at the Young Vic these days? A few months ago I already noted here, “There is now a sense that the Young Vic’s bar and restaurant both function entirely independently of the theatre, attracting an audience entirely of its own who hang out there all evening, while the theatregoers themselves are regarded as an inconvenient intrusion.” But I’ve grown to love the restaurant, especially for its unusual and flavoursome sausage dishes – South African boerewors, or last night, Russian sausages; so now I’ve become one of those who go there just for the food, even without seeing a show first.
Indeed, I was at a first night at the National last night for Happy Now?, and arranged to meet a friend afterwards at the Young Vic instead of at the National, which (though it stays open after the shows, unusually for London theatres) tends to become a bit forlorn and vacant after hours, though it is teeming by day. The theatre part of the Young Vic was entirely dark last night – yet when I arrived at 9.30pm I grabbed the single free table in the restaurant, and the bar was packed both upstairs and down.
It has a very New York, “happening” vibe; this is clearly a place that, as part of Southwark’s ongoing regeneration, has become somewhere to meet.
But it does worry me that, when the place has a play on as well, there’s nowhere for the theatregoers to spend time before the show, during the interval or afterwards, since all the generous new foyer spaces that were created during the refurbishment are all already occupied. I suppose you could say it’s a nice problem for the Young Vic to have – to have become a destination in its own right, never mind the plays, and in fact some of those people who come for the bar and restaurant may one day be tempted to actually see a play there. (I will never forget the ad director of one of the West End’s major advertising agencies that look after theatre once telling me, “I am going to the National tonight with my husband – we’ve never been before!” So I asked her what they were seeing: “Oh no, we’re not seeing a play, we’re eating in the Mezzanine!”)
Still, it makes a change to the Birmingham Rep, where my attempts to actually eat in the empty restaurant before a pre-Christmas matinee of their production of Peter Pan were rebuffed by the staff who made it clear that customers were something of an inconvenience, as I wrote here at the time. I subsequently found out I was far from alone in this experience: The Guardian’s Lyn Gardner told me she, too, had given up on trying to eat there.
But there is perhaps a balance to be struck between restaurants that support the theatre or alternately overwhelm them or disregard their customers completely. The National usually get this balance right, though I was surprised a couple of weeks ago when I met a friend there who was attending a weekday matinee that the Lyttelton Terrace restaurant wasn’t actually open for lunch. We ended up at the BFI Southbank next door instead.
I always like to support theatre restaurants – since I (typically) get my tickets for free, this is a way of me putting my money where my mouth is, in more ways than one, and contribute a bit towards the theatre’s finances. But as I’ve just shown, it’s not always possible….