Performances that involve food make me nervous. One of the reasons I became a food writer was a predilection for the theatre of the restaurant, the entrances and exits in the stage set of the dining room, the sensory drama running counterpoint to the little dramas unfolding at every table and behind the kitchen doors. In my experience, adding actual theatre to proceedings can make for cringey times.
But ex-Aumbry chef Mary-Ellen McTague's name in connection with High Tea in Wonderland is enough to make me risk a food/theatre mashup. The chef who built a national reputation in two-knocked together terraces in Prestwich has always seemed like the kind of person who is rightly careful about the projects she will attach her name to. And I don't mind telling you I am excited like a giddy little girl about the opening of her new restaurant in the Roadhouse site this Autumn. Even if the theatre was shocking, I knew we'd eat well.
Threatening to upstage the food and the acting was the setting, the upper chambers of the neo-Gothic Manchester Museum, where its botanical collections are stored. We were granted rare access to the garrety attic bits of the spectacular building: curved ceilings, secret tower rooms, wallsfull of ancient wood storage drawers and baize green catalogue boxes with the odd taxidermied animal grinning from an unlikely corner. At last, I have found my dream office suite!
We were led around by a very dapper white rabbit, pelting up the stairs after him into a series of rooms where we encountered the characters from Carroll's story in proper sequence. My favourite was the turbaned Catepillar, an actor I recognised from something but can't place. Her languid take on the hookah-puffing master of psychedelia was spot on, her barbed exchanges with the audience keeping us all delightfully wrongfooted. It well judged; no ghastly dinner theatre here but just enough of a taste of performance to keep us engaged.
And of course, there was the food. We started off with a tea party, sweet little cakes and teapots arranged on a long work table amid flowers and botanical samples in a display that would give Cath Kidston multiple orgasms. Then in each new stop on the tour, there was something tasty to eat or drink with a clever link back to Carroll. In the catepillar's lair we got a winning combination of mushroom consomme and a delicate pink macaroon decorated with the indelicate words BITE ME. You expected it to be sweet, but it turned out to be beetroot flavoured and filled with chicken livers.
The servers broke character to tell us about the butter content in the astonishingly rich meat pies (don't ask) and to tell us how the image of Mary-Ellen on a playing card got onto our dessert with the Queen of Hearts... Okay, look, I'm not going to go into detail about every single thing we ate, and why should I? You can't go into a restaurant and order it. All that's left are fond memories and a single teaspoon in my drawer with the words STEAL ME etched on its surface. Just following instructions.
Image courtesy Mary-Ellen McTague