New writing based on classical literature, with the audience being served Italian food as part of the performance, sounds like a cracking way to spend an evening. The Gastronomical Comedy tells Dante’s story as he tries to be an actor in London but ends up working in his wife’s uncle’s restaurant, The Inferno, to pay the bills. It’s a timeless story of artistic struggle meant to parallel Dante Alighieri’s journey through hell, though the connection between the two stories was tenuous at best as the modern day Dante didn’t encounter particularly difficult opposition to his dreams. Despite good performances, it’s a concept that is good in principle but feels very much like a work-in-progress in need of quite a lot of script development before being a completed piece of theatre.
Paolo Serra’s script co-written with Jud Charlton and Gian Sessarego is quick and choppy, too brief to allow the story to unfold at a realistic pace but neither is it episodic. Dante quickly gets a role in a profit-share show, he easily finds a day job, and his wife gives him a bit of grief but nothing major. The play runs at just over an hour, but this is too short for the time frame covered and character journeys contained in it. Dante is the active hero of the story rather than Alighieri’s passive observer and some comedy and magic opens the evening, which although fun, doesn’t contribute to Dante’s story. As for the food, there was plenty of it served by an onstage waiter-magician to select ticket holders who got several courses of food at onstage tables. Some other audience members received samples of pesto pasta from Dante’s frantic on-stage kitchen, but the rest were unlucky. Disappointing, as it smelled fantastic.
The performances are good though. Sessarego is the optimistic but poor Dante who left his wife in Italy to pursue an acting career. Two additional performers, Jud Charlton and Louise Lee, play several other characters in Dante’s life. These people are extremely heightened, which could clash with Sessarego’s naturalism but effectively draws attention to his foreignness. Charlton’s fringe theatre director who casts Dante in an adaptation of The Divine Comedy is particularly good, as is Lee as Dante’s wife Patricia who the audience mostly sees through projected skype calls.
Set was a chair and a metal trolley for the kitchen, not helping the incomplete feel of the production. There are some well-designed projections and music in Dante’s restaurant, The Inferno, which helped combat the sparseness of the script. The performances also help alleviate the lack of substance, but for The Gastronomical Comedy to really push boundaries of genre and create a food/theatre performance event, the script needs to follow through with several courses rather than try to get by with a predictable starter and a side salad.
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