“We’re going to a desert island – what are you going to take with you?” We were sitting in the hall at primary school, when my teacher said this. I ran up to the classroom to get my lunchbox. I truly believed we were going to a desert island, and the most important thing in my life was my lunch.
Imagine my excitement then, when I’m invited to drink smuggled French wine in a WWII bunker, as an ’Allo ’Allo! style secret agent. My cognitive faculties have developed since I was five – I know I won’t actually be in 1943, but I still love a bit of make believe and who wouldn’t want to neck wine in a bunker?
Maman Le Mot (“mum’s the word”) is an immersive dining experience. If this means about as much as the hand gestures made by the cowboy doing sign language at Nelson Mandela’s funeral, let me explain. Immersive theatre is when the actors interact with the audience – and each other – in character. So rather than performing on stage and sticking to a script, the actors are among the audience, and there’s a fair bit of improvisation. It becomes a ‘dining experience’ when you throw in dinner.
I trained in Meisner, an acting technique that focuses on instinctive improvisation, and I had a spell in immersive theatre myself. I played a temperamental lifeguard at an art installation in Peckham. At a wedding-themed club night, I became a trampy bridesmaid who had history with the best man. At a Mumford & Sons gig in the Olympic Park, I was the Olympic team’s nutritionist. Inspired by Gillian McKeith, I followed gig-goers to the toilet, offering free stool-tests.
So I am well up for getting my beret on in a bunker (near London Bridge), and being recruited by the French Resistance. The evening starts with an induction by Colonel Gubbins to ensure we can carry off the Gallic guise. “What are frogs legs,” he asks, “a bit of an animal or a delicious, tasty snack?” He tells us he passes as French by calling himself Le Colonel Gubbins, and poses the question: “If a Frenchman has a bath on May 13, on what date is his next bath due?”
I’ve taken my friend Camilla who is horrified by the car crash of French clichés. Le Gubbins is oblivious to Camilla recoiling, and picks her out to “hide from the enemy.” Stepping out of the room, Gubbins counts to 10, while Camilla “hides” behind a cabinet. When she comes out, he congratulates her on a good job and it’s all a bit garden-centre-Santa going, “Ho ho ho! What a good girl!” It would be a great game if Camilla was four, rather than forty-something.
We are shown into another room, where there are props including telephones and typewriters, and orangey-shots are placed on the bar. Then we’re led upstairs to the bistro. There are gingham tablecloths, romantic lighting, and black and white pictures on the walls. A woman with 1940s hair is singing. There’s a Moulin Rouge sign that doesn’t fit at all, but somehow it doesn’t matter.
We’re brought chicken, mash and unidentifiable meat in a small bowl. I like it, in a school dinners sort of way. I think it would be lovely with red wine but instead we’re served another alcopop. Camilla says, “what’s next, Ribena?” Perhaps I’ve misunderstood, and we’re meant to smuggle in our own wine.
Following the meat melee, we’re brought a bit of lemon tart. It seems an odd thing to serve between the starter and the main – perhaps it’s palate cleanser? Then it emerges the melee was the main, and this is dessert. It’s an individual size lemon tart, three-and-a-half inches in diameter – only we’ve each been given half. I would like my full seven inches. Camilla says, “if they ran out of ingredients, why didn’t they make smaller tarts?” The PR claims the food is cooked on the premises, but I suspect they’ve done a deal with an airline.
Towards the end of the meal Gubbins crops up again, asking for a volunteer. When he gives one brave soul his harmonica, Camilla and I breath a sigh of relief not to be picked.
The bistro itself is magical. It couldn’t be more perfect for a date with someone you’re besotted with. However, as the war time theme apparently runs to rationing, I suggest you bring your own booze – with a takeaway picked up nearby.
Maman Le Mot runs on Fridays and Saturdays until December 17
Samantha Rea can be found tweeting here