Night Service / La Bonne Crepe Cafe Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture
The way to a theatregoer's heart is through their stomach. Why else does curtain-up coincide with the first pangs of evening hunger? The theatre world conspires to make us think that what we are watching will more than compensate for the meal we would otherwise be eating. To openly acknowledge this fraught relationship between food and theatre goes against all etiquette. La Bonne Crepe Theatre Cafe, which has the gall to sandwich its plays between the main course and dessert of an evening meal, is dismissed as an affront to the profession by drama purists. And when you first walk into the place, you understand why, after 16 years, the concept doesn't appear to have taken off elsewhere. It's all candle- lit tables, posters of Errol Flynn, Judy Garland and Clark Gable and house plants hanging from every crevice. There's a tongue-and-groove stained- pine bar area, piped cheesy post-war Americana and an Italian manager called Carlo, who sports a silver-star-spattered waistcoat.

"The beegest mistaake of my lifa was calling thisa place La Bonne Crepe - but what can yer do?" he says, pointing out that if you don't fancy a ratatouille pancake, there's always the chilli con carne. The place gradually grows weird on you until you realise it's just one man's dream fighting for survival in the wilds of Battersea. And then, upstairs, there's the play, a parallel universe of sorts. The set could be fringe hell itself: dusty, dilapidated furniture that collapses on touch, lethal-looking electrical appliances, a Withnail environment. It suffices perfectly as an abandoned service station in the middle of the Nevada desert.

Ostensibly, Night Service is a timewarp horror movie on stage. Two couples end up stranded in what the audience is shown at the start to have been a human abattoir in 1969 and 1979. What malevolent force is at work is, initially, unclear. But before the bloody denouement, writer / director / star Paul Prescott brings to life some dormant menace. It could almost be a parable about unhappy couples: there's Billy and Mary, gawdy drifters who communicate by cracking weak gags, and Frank and Nicky, frayed at the edges by the demands of parenthood.

They expose each others' shortcomings. "Don't worry, you don't have to like it, just pretend," Mary (the excellent Paddy Navin) hisses to nervy Nicky (Joanne Richards) as she gets domestic in a scene straight out of the Stepford Wives. She might as well be referring to her clothes: a tasselled black leather jacket with leopardskin surround over a glitter-strewn London tourist T-shirt - enough to give anyone nightmares and, indeed, the subsequent dream sequence in which Nicky is attacked by Mary's dead sister (Navin again) and the man she disappeared with in 1979 (the spitting image of Billy) achieves a corresponding tackiness.

By the time you return downstairs, you're feeling fragile. You decline another crepe, just the bill, please. And everything - the half-finished beer, the crouton you rolled into the table-top - is still there, just where you left it, 90 minutes ago. Your bourgeois experience has been turned on its head. The overall effect: unintentionally dysfunctional.

n To 20 Apr, Tues-Sat, meal 7.30pm, show 9.15pm. Booking: 0171-207 1690