Review: The Enlightenment Café

The Old Vic Tunnels have once again metamorphosed into a brave new (well, Victorian) world of underground curiosities. As scientists, historians, top-hatted storytellers, philosophers, psychiatrists and bustle-shaking performers dash from room to room, spectators follow their footsteps into chambers of learning, laughter, debate and at times pure bafflement. This is The Enlightenment Café, brainchild of LAStheatre, and if it illuminates nothing else, it will certainly lighten your mood.

For audience members, the experience is effortlessly immersive. You won’t have wandered the candlelit bar for long before a waist-coated pair sidle up and start to take the anthropometric measure of you – your height, your hair, your mood – as they ponder the effect of the Transit of Venus upon humans. You can grab a song sheet and crowd round the piano, or perhaps you’ll be called over by Tommy, boisterous apprentice to a psychic physician, and led blindfolded to a draped examination room where your would-be analyst awaits. (Think Derren Brown in tweed and spectacles.)  In returning to the main room you may be invited to a lesson on calling cards at the Blunderton School of Etiquette, or become drawn to a soapbox speaker only to realise it is a fellow audience member who has taken the stage.

The Enlightenment Café aims to recreate the ambience and tone of the coffee houses, or ‘Penny Universities’, which sprung up in the seventeenth century and enjoyed continued popularity into the nineteenth century as places for discourse, debate and scholarship. With its playfulness and disarming Victorian veneer, the event succeeds in stimulating open conversation amongst the audience. The scale of the event and relaxed atmosphere of each mini-event means that spectators feel free to wander and wonder from place to place.

Ever tried speed debating? This event, in which audience members seated themselves in chintzy armchairs in a dimly-lit room was a definite highlight of the evening. Following the announcement of the first motion by the Victorian Mistress and Master of Ceremonies, seated pairs began to argue the ‘for’ and ‘against’ with increasing more fervour. Another memorable happening took place in the lab of fire scientist (yes, they really do exist) Claire Benson, professor at the South Bank University. From spontaneous combustion in humans, to the invention of the Bunsen burner and exploding hemp factories, Benson offered a sprinkling of schoolchild wonderment, as she demonstrated her craft with poofs of smoke and entrancing coloured flames.

In such a way, The Enlightenment Café surreptitiously served science to an arty crowd, and invited the scientists amongst the audience to engage in the play of performance. As the night entered its second phase, spectators congregated in the main hall for a series of talks. Stuart Clark (author of the Sky’s Dark Labyrinth series) acted as MC as panelists offered intriguing facts and histories. Humorous tales of scurvy from Andy Holding, Kathryn Harkup’s descriptions of the Frankenstein-inspiring reanimation of corpses and Paolo Viscardi’s explanation of how mermaids might really exist held our attention. Criminal psychiatrist Tim McInerny spoke about Victorian attitudes towards mental health patients and described his own efforts to incorporate the arts into his treatment of patients at Broadmoor and the Bethlem Royal Hospital.

All in all, The Enlightenment Café succeeded in blending old and new with playful irreverence, with white-gloved hands clasping microphones on stage and Facebook and Madonna becoming the subject of Victorian discourse. It was with happily suspended disbelief, then, that as the evening entered its final stage, a three-piece band, Les Moineaux de Paris, took to the stage to play the music of Paris in the 1930s. And for the finale, the unforgettable Perhaps Contraption, an energetic funk band composed of brass, woodwind and a percussive perambulator, played an eclectic repertoire, even  including a song dedicated to ‘ossicles’ (the tiny bones in our ears which allow us to hear). As the musicians leapt about, the petticoats and walking sticks of onlookers began to twirl: a quirky and almost exhaustingly lively conclusion to a highly memorable evening.

The Enlightenment Café, at the Old Vic Tunnels played 3 May – 3 June.