Originally written for Musical Theatre Review:
Shaftesbury Avenue is one of the main arteries of London’s theatreland. It is also one of its borders: as the street curves northeastwards from Piccadilly Circus to Cambridge Circus, theatres from the Lyric and Apollo up to the Palace adorn its northern side while to the south, cafés and restaurants abound, occasional displays of paper lanterns signalling the edge of Chinatown.
Until recently, that south side played host to a large Costa Coffee store immediately opposite the Queen’s Theatre, home to Les Misérables. But as is the way of these things, that closed – and given how busy Shaftesbury Avenue is, it is perhaps unsurprising that several chains were interested in replacing it.
Winning the battle was Leon, the upmarket fast food chain started in 2004 by John Vincent, Henry Dimbleby and Allegra McEvedy.
In keeping with their new store’s location, they chose to employ trained musical theatre performers throughout. And while it is not unusual for out-of-work actors to gain employment in the hospitality sector, it is less usual for them to be encouraged to utilise their singing skills at work.
“This is wrong – don’t judge me, okay – I think of [the staff] as puppies,” Vincent says. “I know I shouldn’t. But they’re ready for the West End, for the Cameron Mackintoshes, the Lin Manuel Bandanas [sic] of the world to come and take them back to their new homes. I hope that they won’t all go too soon, but what we’ve got here are people who are such precious people. The atmosphere here, the camaraderie – they had got it from day one.”
During a normal day at Leon, from about 11am and into the evening, various members of staff will be encouraged to break into song and entertain the customers. During the opening night, a small podium was set up by the food counters to allow each staff member to showcase their favourite numbers, but under normal circumstances, “the whole restaurant is our stage”, one staff member told me.
As part of the launch night, each member of the performing staff had an opportunity to deliver a solo number, to varying degrees of success.
These were not ideal circumstances – the performers could not hear themselves, with no monitors and an excitable crowd that was talking far more than it was listening. But one gets the sense that if they can do well in these trying circumstances, performing while tourists and theatregoers are eating will come easily.
Around the restaurant, the decor has been adapted slightly from Leon’s usual style. Above the staircase leading down to the basement seating area, headshots of staff members are displayed proudly under the banner ‘Hall of Family’, with plenty of space to allow for staff turnover.
Other walls feature production photos, the customer lift has been decked out in red velvet and renamed the Royal Box, the staff areas are demarcated with signs indicating they are for ‘cast only’ and the downstairs loo is a ‘dressing room’ (for added authenticity, there is only one, allowing for the re-creation of the interval queue for the toilet).
While such cosmetic touches are cosmetic and cheesy, it appears that the management’s commitment to their staff is not.
Julie Cloke, a performer who trained at the American Musical Theatre Academy in London, tells me that the company has promised to provide support for their team members’ true passion.
“They’ve already been amazing, telling us how flexible they’re willing to be around auditions. As part of the job we’re all going to get singing lessons and masterclasses. They want to introduce us to the right people.”
It is easy to be cynical about a chain restaurant moving into Theatreland and adorning the venue with a few tacky visual gimmicks.
The promise of singing staff could similarly also be something that is more PR puffery than anything else. But so long as the enthusiasm and commitment of the young team – which cannot be faked – is backed up with the dedication to their vocation that Leon has promised its employees, then Shaftesbury Avenue could just possibly be gaining something that benefits both a hungry public and a new generation of performers.
And who knows, if this venture is successful in Leon’s newest store, other branches – and other companies – could follow.