I'm looking forward to my Medieval Banquet. I dream of an avalanche of red meat to rival the spoils of a trolley dash done by Brian Blessed, and more red wine than Oliver Reed could glug on an average rampage. I'm going to look like Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Liaisons, and have more bawdy bants than Nell Gwynn. In fact, I'm so excited about shovelling down lamb shank and shiraz, that I'm undeterred when the Medieval Banquet company cancels my booking two weeks in a row. The website offers banquets on Wednesday to Sunday each week, but it turns out the mid-week nights aren't popular enough for the event to go ahead. They recommend I pick a Friday, offering the shaky assurance that they'll be less likely to axe it at the last minute.
And so I book a Friday night, only to be told on arrival that they're not expecting me. "We thought you cancelled," they say. Um, no.... "Well it says here you cancelled." No, I haven't cancelled. We continue in this vein until I can no longer ignore the elephant-of-irony in the room. No, YOU guys cancelled! TWICE! I haven't cancelled at all! If I were Henry VIII, heads would be rolling by now. "OK well it's fine, you're here now," I'm told. So I adjourn to the banqueting hall with my vegetarian friend Janie who's here to sample the non-meaty menu.
On reaching the rack of costumes available to hire, it becomes apparent that my face will not be the only hindrance to resembling Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Liaisons. Despite a heaving-bosom-bodice-and-big-skirt-type-combo in the window at the entrance, the costume hire choices resemble the contents of my niece's dressing up box, but bigger. I opt for a red velour dress with wizard-like sleeves, then stand half-naked in the women's toilets, reluctant to put it on. Do you think they dry-clean these dresses, Janie? "Um."
The odds-and-sods table
The banquet's set up as a long wide corridor, with alcoves off it, on either side. The seating is in the alcoves, while entertainment takes place in the big corridor, the acts shuffling along to perform in front of each alcove. The seats at the corridor-end of the alcove give the best view of the show, but we don't know all this yet, so when we're seated there, at the end of a communal table in a half-empty alcove, I'm not best pleased. We seem to be on the odds-and-sods table, where they've thrown together anyone who's not in a large group. Despite the emptiness of the alcove, there are eight of us wedged on a table which (with its current occupants) seems better suited to six.
The atmosphere on our table is now about as friendly as Diane Abbott's Twitter mentions.
And so I sit, in my damsel in distress dress, half my bottom spilling beyond the table, wondering when the bawdy bants will begin. Janie and I are the only ones in costume, and whatever I've said before about forced fun, Janie and I agree that COSTUMES SHOULD BE MANDATORY. However, clothing aside, there's as much bonhomie at our table as a WI meeting where Damian Green's rocked up to teach computer skills.
I've walked past other alcoves to get to ours, and I've seen some lively tables, so I know there's fun to be had. I want raucous ribaldry, so I slip off to have a quiet word with a staff member about moving seats. She'll look into it, she tells me. A few minutes later, she stands at the end of our table and bellows: "You wanted to MOVE because you DON'T LIKE YOUR TABLE? We can move you over there!" She points to the back of the opposite alcove. "Um, isn't that full of kids?" asks Janie. It is. And I like kids. But they don't feature in my plans for flirting with a courtier in a codpiece — and after a few Friday night wines, I might be a bit sweary. It's OK, I say, we'll be fine here. Five minutes later, another staff member pops up. "Are you the one who wanted to move because you DON'T LIKE YOUR TABLE? You can sit there if you like!" She points to another table, next to more kids. Yeah, no, we're OK thanks.
The atmosphere on our table is now about as friendly as Diane Abbott's Twitter mentions. Our entire table knows my feelings, only now we can't move because I've started on the wine, and I can't spend the evening next to kids, trying not to swear.
Did they have blenders in 1453?
The performers get us singing a song about tending crows in a field. It is a bit like being in assembly. We're then encouraged to summon the waiting staff by slamming our fists on the table, and roaring: "WENCH!" This is the sort of thing I imagine John McCririck doing when he wants his wife to bring him his dinner, and I find myself unable to participate.
When the starter arrives, it becomes apparent that my sleeves are not conducive to eating soup. They need constantly pulling back, only I don't want to touch the fabric because I've JUST WASHED MY HANDS.
I like the vegetable soup very much, and so does Janie, although we both wonder how they got it so smooth. We'd expected it to be chunky, on account of blenders not being invented back in 1453. But maybe they stamped on all the vegetables, like you do with grapes to make wine.
After the soup, I share a meaty, cheesy salad with the rest of the table, while Janie has her own plate of tomato and mozzarella. It doesn't look amazing but Janie says she likes it — and at least she is not food sharing. I struggle with communal plate-sharing because I always take less than I want in an effort to be polite, then I'm inwardly apoplectic when the plate's cleared away with food still on it. Janie has the luxury of eating everything on her plate. I envy her this.
She's like something you'd see at Cirque du Soleil only you get to eat as well. Bargain.
Between each course there's a bunch of singing and some acts. A guy dressed up as a jester spins on his wrist for about 10 minutes in front of each alcove, and a female gymnast does all sorts of bendy stuff inside a hoop. She's like something you'd see at Cirque du Soleil only you get to eat as well. Bargain.
For the main, there's a plate of veg to share (the size of which I'd make for myself at home) and a big cylinder full of chicken. I take one, and then the woman next to me sticks her fork — that's been in her mouth — in ALL THE FUCKING CHICKEN. One-by-one she sticks the fork in each piece of chicken, raising it aloft like a trophy, before discarding it, and moving onto the next. I might have liked another piece of chicken, but now I won't. Excuse me, I say, when I can bear it no more. Can you not do that please? "Do what?" asks the feral forker. CAN YOU PLEASE STOP STICKING YOUR FORK IN ALL THE CHICKEN? Forky's friend gets involved now, because apparently neither of them can see why this might be an issue.
"Did you mean to have the neckline that low?"
Janie, meanwhile, has a stuffed pepper which she declares dreadful. What's wrong with it? "It's hard to explain — it’s just horrible." I'm not overly enamoured with the wine but hey, I'll drink a £4.20 bottle from Tesco, so I don't turn it down. Janie reckons it's decent for a bulk purchase adding that it's "better than the food."
As we continue through the feast, Janie asks: "Did you mean to have the neckline that low?" I look down and see that my dress has slipped south, exposing the entirety of my bra. Luckily I'm looking hot in the sort of soft bra with no under-wiring that tends to be advertised to OAPs in TV guides and Sunday supplements. So that's fine.
It's hard to get into the Medieval vibe when 90% of the punters are in 21st century clothing...
Dessert is some very nice pie, which I'd personally prefer with cream, but then I am a porky pig. I ask Janie what she makes of it all. "They have some issues with authenticity — paper napkins, cutlery and modern glasses were not available in those times. But the singers, actors and gymnasts are great," she says, adding, "it's hard to get into the Medieval vibe when 90% of the punters are in 21st century clothing..."
So who the hell goes to these things?
It seems a fair few Medieval Banqueters are tourists, and it strikes me that many tourists might miss out altogether due to the company's cancellation policy. So if you are intending to squeeze this in on a quick trip to London, make sure you contact them directly to check the night you want to book is likely to go ahead.
To get the best out of the experience — because it is good fun and the entertainment is well orchestrated — book with a big group of friends so you can have your own rowdy table. Or, take your kids because actually, they'll love it — and if the evening showing's a bit late for them, there's an earlier start on a Sunday which might be better timing.
And lastly, definitely dress up. No one likes a courtier in jeans.
All images pictures of the performers © Medieval Banquet.
Samantha Rea can be found tweeting here.