Blissful chaos resulted when stars of stage and screen took over from the waiters at The Ivy
Most actors play waiters early in their careers, so actually being a waiter couldn't be that much harder, could it? One Night Only at The Ivy, where a host of stage and screen greats like Sir Derek Jacobi, Julian Fellowes, Simon Russell Beale, Elizabeth McGovern, Samantha Bond, Emma Thompson and Imelda Staunton acted as waiters, barmen and loo attendants, offered an answer of blissful chaos where you never quite forgot that the actors were actors, but that didn't matter because you were having too much fun.
The evening was the idea of The Ivy's director, Fernando Peire, who wrote in the programme (the evening was in every aspect theatrical) that 'running a restaurant like The Ivy is like being in the theatre business: we have to put on a great show for the customers every time we open our doors'; we have to know our lines and get them right.' All profits from the evening (except service, which the staff kept) went to the Combined Theatrical Charities for elderly penurious actors, of whom there are many, the industry not being known for its pension plan.
At 7pm, the curtain rose – or rather half the actors trooped down from their green room through the bar for the first act. Griff Rhys Jones told me that once he had actually been a waiter at Bofinger in Paris, but it hadn't suited him: 'Waiters wait and I'm not a waiting kind of person.' Two minutes later, he was by Julian Fellowes' side as the latter singed his fingers trying to flambé a dessert.
Pictured left: Samantha Bond and Sir Derek Jacobi
Behind the bar, Simon Russell Beale, one of our greatest Hamlets, was cocktailing and working out how to remember which guest had ordered which drink; you put your finger on the tray to know where to start, he divined. I asked him which drink Hamlet would order. 'The driest of the dry – a Martini.' But wouldn't gin make him melancholy? 'If it were gin, yes. So a vodkatini!' (I think 'Vodkatini for Hamlet' will make an actor an excellent memoir title.)
As Geraldine James showed us to our table – it was the most extraordinary blocking she'd ever had to do, she agreed – the jam by the host's stand bulged as people gawped and the actors started to play their parts.
ONCE WE WERE seated, Emma Thompson asked what sort of wine we'd like. She could recommend quite a few and was a dab hand at opening our Gavi de Gavi: it's something she does a lot, she said. Her hair, short and curly, was because she has just played PL Travers, the creator of Mary Poppins, in a film about her relationship with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks). (Not that kind of relationship.)
The highlight of the evening for me – highlight of the year, perhaps – was when I got Sir Derek Jacobi to do his 'Cl… Cl… Claudius' line from I, Claudius. I giggled like a schoolgirl… You can hear him do it here:
The punters seemed delighted if bemused by the evening. There were your Ivy regulars – theatrical producers and their objects of seduction – playing it cool, but plenty who couldn't hide their amazement too. When a plate was dropped – even though it wasn't one of the actors – a massive cheer went up.
If I call the evening blissful chaos, it does not mean we didn't get our food – we did, and it was delicious – but the entire atmosphere was much more like Saturnalia, the Christmastime festival when Roman slaves and masters would swap roles – gastro-thespian anarchy, with waiter-actors drifting in and out of roles because they were trying to entertain as much as serve.
Soon after Act II started at 9pm, we finished off our burgers and headed upstairs for an early nightcap. Jay Rayner was playing the piano and a soprano was trying to break the stained glass with a Stalinist take on Summertime. At this point, it seemed like the only logical thing.