Set in a struggling Italian restaurant, Tips has an entertaining concept: dinner theatre without the actual dinner. You'll be welcomed at the door, and invited to sit at a fully-laid table, where you'll find yourself listening in on private conversations between staff in the back room. But as the programme blurb stresses, the food served at this restaurant is imaginary. Waiters hand out empty platters, and diners chink empty glasses; in the background, a chef loads a non-existent oven, while the bartender pours invisible drinks from an empty bottle.
But the tip jar is empty, too. It was full yesterday, so there must be a thief in the midst of the crew - and it doesn't take many little grey cells to figure out who the culprit might be. There's the start of an interesting storyline here, and a couple of tender scenes emerge from it, but ultimately the plot never quite goes anywhere. The individual things that happen don't add up to a satisfying narrative arc, and it's hard to pick out any particular message which playwrights Sasha and Rachel Guershon want us to take away.
Part of the problem's that the cast is large, and of notably mixed abilities. Tom Dussek creates a likeable character from the surly chef Csaba - although the vodka-swigging Hungarian he's playing comes dangerously close to a stereotype. But some of the waiting staff seem surplus to requirements and, because they each have their own stories to tell, they eat into the time available for the central plot.
The promised interactivity also needs more space to grow into. We're told that we're at an office Christmas bash - surely the ideal set-up for some immersive hijinks - but the cast don't do much to get the party started, seeming content to let us sit quietly behind the table. There's an improv coach credited on the programme, so presumably they're ready to go off-script, but if they're hoping for pro-active participation they need to signal that intention much more clearly.
More fundamentally, there's just too much disconnection between the front of the restaurant and the tensions we see unfolding behind the scenes. Letting us snoop on the back-room staff is a smart idea, but it only really works as an immersive show if the drama sometimes crosses into our space. Ironically, the staff of this supposedly-dysfunctional diner seem a little too professional for the concept to succeed.
It's not all bad - there are some witty pastiche of the restaurant ritual and, if nothing else, it's made me reflect a little more carefully on what I put into the tip jar. But sadly, at the end of it all, there's too little food for thought on this menu.