Penny is an all-day café in the former Pit Bar in the basement of the Old Vic, a famous and charismatic theatre on the road to south London. I love the Old Vic on its pavement peninsula on The Cut by Waterloo. Sirens screech past; after a particularly calamitous accident, you can hear them from the stalls. (Best to see a musical here; A took me to Kiss Me, Kate when we married, to show he understood me.) It feels — although this may be a lie — like theatre for The People, as they might be but almost never are. It is fierce, shabby and rigorous, although during the 1980 Peter O’Toole Macbeth the laughter carried as far as the trains chugging out to Dorking. Now that Kevin Spacey, the film star and artistic director who signed autographs through a hole in the door, like a proper maniac, has left, the Old Vic feels once more like the London of dreams.
It is a disappointment, therefore, to discover that the Pit Bar, now named Penny — for the Penny Lectures held at the Old Vic in 1882 — is a dismal hipster café, destroyed by the enemies of the very drama it should adore: laziness and lack of imagination, plus the unwise application of pot plants. For each item sold, a penny will be donated to a charity ‘inspired by the theme of the show’; who or what they will support for The Master Builder, I do not know. They do these things better — and as cheaply — at Shoreditch House, and that was never a world-famous Victorian theatre.
It is true that my anger begins to curl when I realise the Old Vic has ripped out the lobby carpets and replaced them with some evil, too-dark flooring of the sort that belongs in rental flats beloved by accountants who clutch only their own fear. Christopher Biggins stood upon that carpet, philistines! And here is Penny, beneath the lovely curling staircase, which has seen so many expressions that do not quite work — a dull, blank space with a long bar, some low tables, some high tables, here a bench, here a chair, here a candle, here a pot plant attached to the wall with the kind of webbing that was in fashion when Jimmy Savile was young. It is so un-thought-out that it could be somebody’s ugly and ill-designed kitchen, and I have one of those already. I am not suggesting Penny — or Pound, as it should be called, if it wants to preen with hipster nobility — should look like the prop room during The Pirates of Penzance, but this is sub-Starbucks. We should be at Attendant, the subterranean Victorian toilet-café in Fitzrovia. That is how you spin an absence. That is how you gild a void.
We have reserved a table; we did not expect a table for eight and, when others land to fill the space, they may be surprised to hear a conversation about which tits are best: small tits or sex tits? (My friend is buying new tits, and she is looking at old masters to choose them, which is a perfectly normal way to behave if you are a well-educated woman in need of new tits.) We order from a typed and deliberately aged menu — a cheese plate, a meat plate, a cheese and ham toastie — and contemplate hipster culture, which is, it seems, to stare at couture Sherbet Dib Dabs, which are sold on the bar, a celebration of a cracked — and peculiarly infantile — nostalgia.
The cheese plate (Stichelton, Old Ford, Bartlett, Tunworth) is excellent; the meat plate (coppa, mutton, salami, venison) is frightening; the -toastie, which oozes large chunks of what the menu calls, mysteriously, ‘jowl’, is burnt. We flee faster than we would from Macbeth, but mirthlessly.
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Penny, The Old Vic, The Cut, London SE1 8NB; www.penny.bar.
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