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'Off Menu: Live' Review: A Bittersweet Performance


James Acaster and Ed Gamble’s live performance of their highly acclaimed podcast, Off Menu, at the Royal Albert Hall has the ingredients for success but falls short in matching the captivating style of their weekly podcast episodes.

'Off Menu: Live' at the Royal Albert Hall. Photo by Millie Brownhill.

In the past five years, Off Menu has become somewhat of a cultural phenomenon in the world of podcasts, garnering an impressive 120 million downloads. The format of each episode consists of the two comedians, Acaster and Gamble, encouraging celebrity guests to engage in pretence as they envisage their dream menu including a starter, main course, side dish, drink and dessert. The duo have a flair for making their guests feel at ease, demonstrating their abilities as gifted conversationalists.

Food is a revealing topic of conversation and often provides the opportunity to delve deeper into the lives of the guests, evoking nostalgia and fond childhood memories. The hosts’ depth of food and restaurant knowledge, which intersperses each episode, is equally as absorbing as the guests’ dream menu, if not sometimes more.

The grandiose, Victorian architecture of the Royal Albert Hall certainly provides a stark contrast to the intimacy of my kitchen, where I usually listen to Off Menu whilst cooking or eating. The venue seems incongruous with the light entertainment about to unfold, a thought immediately confirmed when the familiar, plunky theme tune bursts through the sound system as the comedians saunter on stage. The discordance between venue and event is only furthered by James Acaster’s nervous energy as he paces up and down the stage, muttering things that are sometimes indecipherable; he certainly comes across more at ease behind a microphone in a studio somewhere in London rather than with a live audience of 5,000 people.

The first half of the performance deviates from the normal format of the podcast as Acaster and Gamble critique the menu choices submitted by the audience earlier on in the day. The nervous wit of the duo coalesces into a slightly frenzied start to the evening; there is a substantial reliance on the loyalty of the audience to partake in pre-existing running jokes and fill a few awkward silences with encouraging laughs.

Those of you who are one of the 120 million to have downloaded the podcast will be no stranger to James Acaster’s hostility towards any guest that dares to choose a cheese board over a sweet treat for dessert. As anticipated, this antagonism is brought to the surface as one member of the audience had chosen a cheese board in their dream menu, to which Acaster threatens violence upon the culprit in the crowd.

Acaster displays moments of mastery with his outlandish tangents, yet when the jokes begin to fall flat, it is up to Gamble to stop his friend in his tracks and establish a different trajectory. In this fashion, the comedians assume their usual roles of Gamble as the more mature and charming maître d’ and Acaster as the eccentric and uninhibited "genie waiter."

The second half comes as a welcome relief when the performance acquires the typical format of the Off Menu podcast. Matthew Baynton, a comedic actor best known for his role in the children’s programme Horrible Histories, was this evening’s dream restaurant guest. Acaster and Gamble become instantly more at ease, greeting the actor as if he were an old friend and engaging him in fluid conversation.

The comedians take an invested and sincere interest in Baynton’s food choices, asking questions that elicit a greater insight into the actor’s everyday, home life. The discussion involving sourdough bread, Baynton’s answer to the question “poppadoms or bread?”, marks a special, intimate moment when the guest describes in detail the texture and flavour of his favourite sourdough loaf, something he used to get from a local food market at the weekend with his young children. Acaster and Gamble are equally as endearing when their passion for, and extensive knowledge of, numerous cuisines is made evident in their dynamic responses to Baynton’s menu.

Despite the hosts relaxing into their area of expertise, the second half loses momentum at points and one can see the benefit of the fast forwarding function on a podcast application. The differences between a live performance and an audio experience are further evidenced by Acaster and Gamble’s frequent endeavours to make the audience laugh, something they don’t need to worry so much about usually. Digressing from their typical podcast personas, the comedians turn to crude jokes and scatalogical language in order to assuage their desire for an audience reaction. One particular tangent results in a discussion of aubergines, a phallic looking food item, and thus an ensuing, coarse joke from Gamble that “James and I f***k an aubergine in the interval”, which ran on for too long.

There is no denying that Off Menu: Live induced in me a feeling of delight, as I’m sure it did for the rest of the happy audience, in encountering my favourite podcast in real life and putting a face to the effervescent voices of James Acaster and Ed Gamble. Nevertheless, Off Menu lost some of its magic and authenticity as it became engulfed by the immensity of the Royal Albert Hall and the expectation that comes with this venue.

Off Menu in the format of a podcast is still a work of genius, however; each episode nourishes you with equal measures of warmth and humour, and leaves you hungry for more.


Off Menu Live is on tour until 28 November. Whilst tickets are currently sold out for all performances, some last minute tickets are being regularly released on the Off Menu Instagram. You can also listen to the Off Menu podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and Acast.

Edited by Georgia Gibson, Theatre Editor.