Reviews West End & Central Published 12 September 2011

The Kitchen

National Theatre ⋄ 31st August - 9th November 2011

Bring to a simmer.

Neil Dowden

Kitchen confidential. Photo: Mark Bremner

As he approaches his eightieth birthday, Arnold Wesker is enjoying a belated renewal of interest in his work. Following on from the Royal Court’s first-rate production of Chicken Soup with Barley this summer comes a dynamic revival of his 1959 play The Kitchen. Daringly for the period, the play puts centre stage working-class people going about their daily jobs in the context of multi-ethnic London.

Set in the kitchen of the big Tivoli restaurant in the West End, the play shows one day in the working life of a group of chefs, catering assistants, waiting staff and management as they bicker and banter, flirt and compete in a pressure-cooker atmosphere to produce meals for the unseen customers outside. After a slow start, the pace becomes frenetic as lunchtime approaches, then there is a lull before the even more manic build-up to dinner. In this madhouse or hell-hole, the kitchen workers may not all like each other but they know they have to work together to survive.

This ensemble piece features no fewer than 30 characters, some little more than walk-on parts, but in this culinary mayhem whatever focus there is is primarily on Peter, a German boiled-fish chef whose simmering frustrations reach boiling point. His affair with a married waitress is going nowhere, while he gets involved in a fight with a Cypriot-Greek griller. As a dreamer-provocateur, he stirs things up in this cooking pot of camaraderie and rivalry, as he asks his fellow-workers if there is anything more outside the everyday grind of routine.

The weakness of Wesker’s fragmented approach is that some characters emerge only to fade away while we never penetrate very deeply into their inner lives. But his purpose is not so much to express individuality, though everyone is differentiated, as to highlight collective behaviour and mutual dependence within a working community full of tensions and conflicts.

Bijan Sheibani’s spectacularly choreographed production (aided by movement director Aline David) is packed with bewildering business and movement. This may be kitchen-sink drama but sometimes a non-naturalistic approach is taken, with stylised scenes involving freeze frames and synchronised stirring. At one point the restaurant owner gets up on a table and literally conducts the orchestra of workers around him and later the characters circle the stage in a merry-go-round of repetitive labour as lights flash and waitresses are hoisted up into the air.

Although there is no food on display, there is plenty of steam in Giles Cadle’s extraordinary set, framed by back-to-front letters of the restaurant name and a blackboard listing dishes, with an impressive array of gas-jet work stations, pots, pans and utensils so that you can almost smell the cooking.

The excellent cast portraying this melting pot of cultures includes a strong central performance full of pathos from Tom Brooke as the stir-crazy Peter, Katie Lyons as his indecisive girlfriend, Ian Burfield as a truculent boozing butcher, Samuel Roukin as a depressed Jewish pastry chef whose wife has left him, Rory Keenan as a new bemused Irish cook and Bruce Myers as the ever-watchful, demanding proprietor.

A contemporary health and safety inspector may be horrified by seeing these people working amidst cigarette smoke and broken crockery, scalding and fainting, but as the proprietor would no doubt say, if you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen.

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Neil Dowden

Neil's day job is working as a freelance editor for book publishers such as HarperCollins, Penguin, Faber and British Film Institute Publishing, but as a night person he prefers reviewing for Exeunt. He has also written features on the theatre and reviewed films, concerts, albums, opera, dance, exhibitions, books and restaurants for various newspapers and magazines, including The Stage and What's On in London, as well as contributing to a couple of books on 20th-century drama and writing a short tourist guide to London for Visit Britain. He insists he is not a playwright manqué but was born to be a critic and just likes sticking a knife into luvvies. In fact, as a boy he wanted to become a professional footballer, but claims there were no talent scouts where he then lived on the South Wales coast, and so has had to settle for playing Sunday league for a dodgy south London team. Apart from the arts and sport, his other main interest is travel, and he is never happier than when up a mountain, though Everest Base Camp is the highest he has been so far. He believes he has not yet reached his peak.

The Kitchen Show Info


Directed by Bijan Sheibani

Written by Arnold Wesker

Cast includes Neal Barry, Tom Brooke, Ian Burfield, Rebecca Davies, Stavros Demetraki, Craige Els, Ruth Gibson, Colin Haigh, Rendah Heywood, Tendayi Jembere, Siobhan McSweeney, Gerard Monaco, Sarah Mowat, Bruce Myers, Vincenzo Nicoli, Luke Norris, Jessica Regan, Samuel Roukin, Tim Samuels, Sam Swann, Stephanie Thomas, Rosie Thomson

Link http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/

Running Time 2 hrs 20 mins (including interval)

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