Stepping in to Stand + Stare’s immersive The Guild of Cheesemakers feels like entering a supernatural sanctum. Our hands are washed at the door with warm lavender water in a sacred ritual before we enter the cosily lit temple of dining, where crested napkins adorn crisp white tablecloths and a plethora of glassware raises expectations for the night ahead.
The quality and attention to detail in the staging helps set a vastly superior tone; however, the grandeur is soon tempered by the effervescent greetings of the Beadle, Susannah Gray, who welcomes us as honoured members of the guild. If Nina Kirkwood feels like an over-enthusiastic provincial committee member then we immediately forgive her for it, as her warmth and scattiness puts everyone at ease as we get to grips with our new-found role within this ancient and respected association.
At first the evening progresses just as expected from a tasting, as resident experts from local establishments instruct us to sniff crumbs of cheese, lecture on how to keep sour dough alive and try to discuss the fruity high notes of different wines before everyone has got to the bottom of their glasses. The enthusiasm shown by the artisan cheesemonger and bakery assistant for the art of their food proves infectious, and if I spend the next day raving about the palatable benefits of J Mellis’s double curd Cambus O’May it is no accident.
Yet as the ceremonial slicing of the brie and toasts to Boris Johnson ensue it becomes increasingly clear that this is an evening of pure silliness masquerading as high society. Throughout the first tasting there is a nagging sensation that this is not just a foodie’s paradise and something strange is lurking just around the corner. That strangeness reveals itself in the form of a genial man called Spalding who interrupts the evening to enlighten the guild on a particular entry in the hallowed ‘Book of Curds’.
Claiming to be centuries old, Spalding reveals the meteoric magic that gives his cheese recipe anti-ageing properties, responsible for keeping him and his wife in suspended animation for hundreds of years. Soon we are swept up in Spalding and Amelia’s own fairytale of forbidden love, evil plots and sort-of-happily-ever-afters, before we are finally presented with the couple’s quarrel: should we replicate the cheese’s unique formula and thus offer the gift of eternal youth to all of humanity as Spalding desires, or should we destroy the remaining ingredients and allow Amelia the peace of finally growing old and dying alongside her loved one?
Here, just as it starts to feel like a dodgy Doctor Who episode, The Guild of Cheesemakers offers something a little tastier to get your teeth into. The guild must debate and vote on this ethical dilemma, and sparks start to fly as strangers argue over the merits of living forever, the practical considerations for our planet or species, and the role of society in protecting man from his own vices. With the guild heavily lubricated by the evening’s tipples, a little more room could have been allowed for ideas and discussions to develop, but the relevance and seriousness of the question adds welcome gravity to an evening of otherwise thin storytelling. The show’s climax proves nowhere near as dramatic as the debates that continue across the table long after the performance ends.
Culinarily you cannot want for anything more from The Guild of Cheesemakers. Theatrically you might just feel a little empty.