Performances ongoing until Jan 12 2019, Tuesday-Sunday, Doors: 6.30pm/Food: 7pm (runtime 3hrs, with the bar open late on Fridays and Saturdays), prices between £35-£55 per head
Though not quite in our usual West London stomping ground, this immersive dining experience is too much of an ultra-event for this critic not to journey just South of the river – and to urge you to do the same.
Billed as “a heavenly new dining experience based on the story of Dionysus, God of Pleasure and Mischief…brought to you by immersive party pioneers Shotgun Carousel”, this is not just dining or even ‘immersive dining’ so much as an all-singing, all-dancing, lust-fuelled, cabaret-cum-circus extravaganza! Expect not only to be fed, but to shed your inhibitions (and possibly your clothes!) in the exotic heat of The Vaults while dining and drinking like the divine deities themselves.
The evening takes you – quite literally – to heaven and back (via a brief stint in the underworld), guided by a colourful cast of exotic, humorous and wildly talented deities and nymphs. They lead you from entrance to dining room, keep you entertained between courses and occasionally even pop up beside you at dinner to keep the conversation flowing. The cast rotate every night, but are a mixture of singers, dancers, drag-kings, and burlesque performers, changing the atmosphere from bacchanal to comedy club in a heartbeat. By far my favourite was the sultry, deliciously gender-bending, ‘label-shedding’ Dionysus (our host and compere for the evening, who isn’t averse to belting out a Madonna power-ballad when the mood serves). But expect to be equally intrigued by the dippy delights of a strip-teasing Aphrodite, and a flame-eating/swallowing/licking, wax- pouring Persephone. If these Gods sound a little unlike the trad Greek gods of old, that’s all part of the fun. Early on our host encourages us to shed our labels and our inhibitions (I imagine most dinners don’t start with 100 or so people being encouraged to sigh in united mock sexual ecstasy with their fellow diners) and if you do so, you’re in for a Hell (or should that be Heaven?) of a ride…
Placed squarely between ancient Greece and the bright neon of Soho, the design and concept of both set and costumes is an absolute triumph! Think everything from neon and glitter, to horned-headdresses to head-to-toe leather to flower-covered raincoats. The evening plays with expectation, with gender, with boundaries and with the audience, and the aesthetic matches that every beat of the way.
After making their way through a Wisteria-and-giant-pom-pom bedecked entrance way, the audience congregate in a room that feels like the love-child of a Hackney club cellar and a Moroccan souk. Neon signs pepper the walls and there are low, cushioned little nooks to sit with a cocktail and wait for the event to begin. The feel of the night from thereon out is very much sex and humour in equal measure; whether it’s the oversized ‘lady-part’ doorway the audience are led through to the upstairs dining room, or the bunches of grapes hanging from the ceiling that are each detailed with either a pouting pair of lips or a glittery nipple. And in the dining room itself expect to see illuminated storm-clouds, gnarled trees sprouting through the dining tables, and all that glitters!
Those guests who adhere to the dress code “dress like a deity, your most bedazzled, bejewelled and brilliant sequinned self” will find themselves especially at home; whether it’s a full-on Grecian-inspired gown plus crown of golden leaves or a modest little dab of cheek-glitter, the evening is fun and frivolous and those who arrive in suits or traditional dinner-wear might well find themselves disrobing (for any number of reasons, The Vaults can get a little overheated).
A delightfully mixed bag! Large groups of friends (birthdays and hen-parties abound) are especially well-served by the raucous energy of the evening, and – unsurprisingly perhaps being a very female-led event (all performers are either female or non-binary) – many groups were all-female. That’s not to say there were no men present, or indeed dating couples, but when it comes to the latter this is an evening to join in and be loud, rather than sit back and catch up. Festival-goers (think early Secret Garden Party and Shambala rather than Reading) and fans of a good dress-up will undoubtedly feel right at home here; my companion said it reminded her of stumbling into late-night Shangri-La at Glastonbury. Certainly, those who are ‘up for anything’ and come armed with a sense of adventure will find more to enjoy here than those merely wanting a nice meal (I couldn’t help rolling my eyes at a fellow guest who when asked by the compere what her greatest desire was dissolved into shy giggles and refused to answer).
The one minor addendum of the evening is that five courses isn’t quite a full ‘five-courses’. Anyone expecting such may be disappointed, but if you think tasting menu you shouldn’t be! And there’s a real communal eating element to the evening – it is a feast after all – so if you’re not a sharer this may not be the night for you.
In the most traditional culinary nod of the evening, dinner begins with huge platters of salt-crusted fluffy bread, oil and balsamic vinegar, served in hanging platters that guests gather round to share. If there’s a moment to make friends with your fellow diners, it’s this one! I had to stop myself filling up on that alone as it was some of the most delicious bread I can remember eating (and my fellow diners agreed).
On being led upstairs there’s further sharing bowls, but this time of olives, sweet pickled onions (couldn’t get enough!), caper berries and chillies. A palate-cleanser of sorts follows, in the shape of a jelly and foam flavoured with cardamom vodka, Riesling bitters, limoncello and turmeric. For the meat-eaters the next course is pink sea bass ceviche, seaweed salad, pickled cucumber, shaved fennel, orange puree, puffed amaranth and toasted sesame (whereas veggies/vegans have the seabass replaced with pink cured kohlrabi). The main event is either a roast guinea fowl breast or green courgette stuffed with Mediterranean bean stew, both served with celeriac puree, and red wine sauce, plus an abundance of new caramel potatoes, chantenay carrots and beetroots, Romanesco hearts, charred sweetcorn and balsamic pearls. But by far my favourite dish was the dessert of caramelised white chocolate, coconut milk and honey ganache with pomegranate, figs and edible flowers (possibly because I most definitely wasn’t sharing).
There is a small but excellent selection of both wine and beer on offer, but where the evening really scores is its heavenly cocktail menu! Many are bespoke creations for the event; I was a particular fan of both the Midas Touch (mead, thyme-infused honey, prosecco and a dusting of gold) and the Ambrosia (Advocaat, Tuaca, Cointreaua, vanilla and beetroot orange). And the more traditional espresso martini and white negroni are done to perfection. At £9 a pop excellent value for central London!
In a nutshell
Though the food is a feast, and the design sublime, for me the evening belongs without doubt to the phenomenal female/non-binary performers. If the combined vocal, fire-y, high-kicking talents of (on the night we attended) Helen White (as Dionysus), Molly Beth Morossa (Aphrodite) and Charlie Bouquett (Persephone) fail to get you hot under the collar and in need of a cold shower, you might want to check your pulse.
Crucially though, it’s rare to see an event of this nature that is so visibly female-led and so liberated in its attitude to sexuality, gender and what makes a good night out. This evening is unique, inspiring and about so much more than food!
Divine Proportions at The Vaults, Leake Street, SE1 7NN; www.thevaults.london.com; 020 7401