Heavenly Ivy, The Ivy, London

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The Independent Culture

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 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.