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Heavenly Ivy

The Guardian, 9th November 2010, Michael Billington

Dining out is a form of theatre. So it makes sense for The Ivy, on the 20th anniversary of its rebirth, to be transformed into a performance space for this festive tribute by Ronald Harwood. What Harwood has come up with is a ghost story summoning up the shades of those who haunted The Ivy in the 20th century’s interwar years.

Harwood’s main focus is James Agate, the drama critic of the Sunday Times from 1922-1947, a man who, in those palmy days, lunched daily at The Ivy. Using Agate as his vehicle gives Harwood the chance to air many of the old boy’s prejudices and pungent quips, such as “The English instinctively admire any man who has no talent and is modest about it.” Through Agate’s memory, we also get to meet the two less-than-fraternal Italians, Abel Giandellini and Mario Gallati, who created the restaurant, and also some of the stars, such as Noël Coward and Alice Delysia, who suavely patronised it - and in the latter’s case even gave it its name.

For a modern critic accustomed to snatched sandwiches and unplush evenings in fringe theatres, it is a reminded of a vanished world. Deftly directed by Sean Mathias, the piece also gets a suitably robust performance from Michael Pennington as Agate, who resembled, as Kenneth Tynan once said, “a suspiciously clean farmer”.

But, management having turned The Ivy into a performance venue, I’d love to see them stage Pinter’s Celebration, which offers a caustic view of restaurant clientele. Even better would be for someone to follow the example of the great Brazilian innovator Augusto Boal by allowing a play to erupt  unexpectedly in some busy popular restaurant. That would really put the drama back into eating out.

The Telegraph, 10th November 2010, Charles Spencer

The Ivy in London’s West End, affectionately known among luvvies as “the works canteen”, is celebrating the 20th anniversary of its reopening, when it re-established itself as the most fashionable restaurant in town among the great, the good and the desperate wannabes of the theatrical world. It’s a place to see and be seen, to seal deals and exchange gossip. As a grubby theatrical hack, I enter the place rarely and with extreme trepidation, as there is sure to be someone there I have offended. That’s a shame because the grub is excellent, the service and ambience exceptional.

One theatre critic who displayed no such craven caution was James Agate (1877-1947), drama critic of the Sunday Times, who ate there most lunch-times in the Twenties and Thirties. The late and much missed Frank Johnson of the Telegraph use to tease me mercilessly about this. “Agate ate at the Ivy. And where do you go, Spencer? McDonalds!”

Actually, I’ve moved up to Pret à Manger these days, but what a joy it was to be invited to the Ivy’s celebrations this week. I took Mrs Spencer for protection in case Dame Judi or David Hare were there, and, with indecent relish, tucked into the seared foie gras, the halibut with wild ceps and the tarte tatin.

Dinner was followed by a new half-hour play by Ronald Harwood about the Ivy, directed by Sean Mathias and played on the restaurant floor. This, too, proved a pleasure, thank heavens, as it would have been hard to give it a kicking after such largesse on the house.

Heavenly Ivy concerns the ghostly incarnation of Agate, summoned back to the Ivy by the shades of its original owner, Abel Giandellini, and its maître d’, Mario Gallati. Michael Pennington as Agate booms aphorisms with resonant relish and declares that his love of cricket means he is only confined to purgatory, while other drama critics are consigned to hell because they had no other redeeming feature. There are jokes at the expense of Brecht and Pirandello. Noël Coward songs are sung by a stylish couple in evening dress, and we are treated to a potted history of the Ivy and its habitués who have ranged from Churchill to Puccini and from J M Barrie to Harold Pinter. Mysteriously, Christopher Biggins is absent from the roll-of-honour.

As well as Pennington's Agate, who memorably captures the self-regard of a man who published nine volumes of his diaries under the title Ego, there are engaging performances from David Shaw-Parker and Nicholas Woodeson as the disputious Italians who created the original Ivy.

As so often with the Ivy, you won’t get a table unless you are well connected, though you might just get lucky if someone cancels at the last minute. As for me, it will be back to Pret for a toasted sandwich tonight.

The Independent, 11th November 2010, David Lister

As a way of watching a play, it takes some beating. A meal at a truly legendary restaurant, the house lights dim, candles on every table flicker, and over the coffee the entertainment begins.

The Ivy commissioned this play by the distinguished dramatist Sir Ronald Harwood to celebrate its 20th anniversary. Of course, The Ivy has been going much longer than two decades, but it is the 20th anniversary of the current incarnation. It’s also less a play and more a diverting 25-minute entertainment. But who’s counting?

What’s for sure, as those who look around the tables know, is that The Ivy has pulling power. The small cast is headed by the great stage actor Michael Pennington, and the production in the round directed by Sean Mathias, more usually to be found at the National Theatre. Pennington plays the drama critic James Agate, and the play was set in the restaurant’s glory years during the War when patrons defied Hitler by dining in the blackout. Well, it’s a defiance of a sort.

Pennington is compelling as the critic, sometimes catty, sometimes languid, sometimes fearful of the Blitz and sometimes rhapsodic as when he recalls seeing Donald Wolfit as Lear and Laurence Olivier as Richard III before celebrating their performances at The Ivy.

The piece is informative about the place’s history and clientele - Winston Churchill practised making a speech there; other diners included Puccini, G K Chesterton and every famous actor who could afford it “Actors cling together like ivy,” says one character to the proprietor, desperate for a name for his new acquisition. The play also has its share of in-jokes, particularly a running gag about the love-hate relationship between The Ivy and Le Caprice. But if it is slight, it is atmospheric and Harwood’s final speech for the maître d’ should be written on the wall of every restaurant. “A restaurant should be a magical world, just like the theatre... but unlike a theatre every customer must believe they have the best seat. Every customer must be recognised, cherished and honoured. A great restaurant casts its own spell of excitement and anticipation... where it is a delight to look upon your fellow diners, to admire the choreography of the waiters and, yes, to rejoice in the food.”

And maybe more should put on a play with the coffee.

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