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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Olivier)


  Tom Brooke and Katie Lyons/ Ph: Marc Brenner

Arnold Wesker – aka one of the Angry Young Men of the John Osborne-led revolution that placed the working classes centre stage – is a dramatist who has resentfully spent much of his working life outside Britain’s theatre establishment. But in recent times not only has Wesker been brought in from the cold with a knighthood, he has been given the warmest of embraces with revivals of Chicken Soup with Barley at the Royal Court and now his first play written in 1957, The Kitchen, at the National. 

Although, during the press night, as an inscrutable Wesker sat in the stalls watching Bijan Sheibani’s expansive production, I couldn't help wondering how much Wesker had warmed to a show that is at least as much about the directing as it is about the writing. 

This kitchen looks like the kind of swish restaurant engine room that modern eateries like to put centre stage and in full view of the patrons. Light, airy and spacious it is very far from the kind of workhouse “hellhole” described by Wesker’s many kitchen workers. 

But the realism that Sheibani sacrifices in favour of style is probably worth it at the final count – from waitresses to kitchen workers; from Marango, the watchful middle-European owner of the Tivoli restaurant, to the well-spoken tramp who incongruously shuffles into the mayhem for a bite to eat. Wesker wrote 30 characters for his first play, which is enough to give even the most accomplished directors of human traffic a headache.

In the moments when German fish cook Peter implores waitress Monique to leave her husband, or when Jewish pastry chef Paul laments the lack of fellowship in this still post-war world, how does a director suppress the cacophony of a working kitchen so that we can actually hear what is being said? Sheibani’s elegant answer is to freeze everyone but the speakers. It’s a method that works superbly well when Peter introduces the new fried-fish cook Kevin to the rest of the kitchen's crew. As he does so, each worker unfreezes and resumes his job until the cacophony is restored. And the method becomes a downright coup when as the food orders come in thick and fast, the entire cast spontaneously moving in balletic unison to Dan Jones’ orchestral score. What a stunningly effective way to portray the kitchen and its human ingredients as a well-(vegetable)-oiled machine. 

But there is a price for sacrificing the play’s realism. And it is paid both in logical and psychological terms. When Peter compels his exhausted peers to dream of something beyond the confines of their oppressive workplace, you wonder which oppressive workplace he is talking about, so airy, spacious and, to a modern audience’s eyes, fashionably retro is Giles Cadle’s design. And while tempers do rise under the pressure of work, the kitchen seemingly remains too cool, despite the steam, the fiery gas hobs and the delicious sizzle when Rory Keenan’s fish fryer mimes the insertion of a battered plaice into a pan of oil. 

Yet so seductive is the production, it keeps any reservations about the absence of realism on the back burner. And so charismatic is the dangerous Tom Brooke as the loose canon German Peter, that when he compels his fellow workers to dream of something beyond the relentless demands of the kitchen, we go with his flow, even while, like a half-forgotten pan of minestrone, a thought continues to simmer – that this kitchen really isn't such a bad place to work.


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