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A CurtainUp London Review
It is a slice of theatrical history, this 1950s "slice of life" play by Arnold Wesker set in the kitchen of a large restaurant before Gordon Ramsay brought us the kitchens from Hell. What makes the production remarkable is the balletic direction of Bijan Sheibani which has the whole army of chefs working continuously chopping and whisking and frying and waving utensils in the air in unison. It is powerful and hypnotic to watch, elegantly and expertly choreographed with beautiful imagery, as many hands make serious cuisine. Of course those of us who remember British cuisine in the 1950s know that our reputation for terrible food was well deserved and it seems rather a shame that the heights of culinary elegance in this kitchen are the cutlets.
Wesker famously sued the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1972 for not producing The Jounalists a play which they had commissioned from him. The Kitchen is Wesker’s first play and a tribute from the National Theatre to an important British writer as he reaches 80.
The play opens with the first of the workers, Magi (Tendayi Jembere), the night kitchen porter with his heavy Jamaican accent, the only black worker, getting the kitchen ready for the day shift. Some cooks arrive and the waitresses parade through the kitchen in high heels before getting changed into their brown uniforms. It is fascinating to watch this progress of people hurrying about their business although the accurate cigarette smoking in the kitchen shocks us as unhygienic by modern standards.
Occasionally the hubbub will completely pause, the action frozen to classical music until the introductions are made to the new Irish chef Kevin (Rory Keenan) and one chef starts to whisk or chop and slowly another cheffing station joins the action and then another, until once more the whole kitchen has burst into life. The director’s attention to detail means the cooks work continuously at industrial speed wielding dangerous looking knives and pans of hot liquid.
The set is as authentic and as detailed as you could hope for, from the old fashioned ovens to the cream tiles and double swing doors through which the serving staff go to the restaurant. The costumes too are completely in period — chef whites, waitresses in brown uniforms, management in dark suits. The kitchen shelves are piled high with serving dishes and glasses and plates and silver salver food covers. There are gas flames lit on the burners and steam rises from the pans of boiling water. The stage is surrounded by a blackboard with dishes chalked up in smudged writing.
Alongside this kitchen ballet lie Wesker’s characters from many different countries. The Greek Cypriot chef Gaston (Stavros Demetraki) in charge of the grill tells the Englishman, "You will never create moussaka. Chips. Chips with Everything" he says, echoing the title of another of Wesker’s plays. The new arrival Kevin is on fried fish and as luck would have it this is a Friday, the day on which fish is traditionally eaten. AsKevin says,"1500 people and half of them eating fish."
The central character is Peter (Tom Brooke),the imaginative German boiled fish chef who is having an affair with married waitress Monique (Katie Lyons). Peter breaks out of the kitchen routines to pile up dustbins topped with saucepans and finally a broom. He talks about dreams and arches and make-believe rose bushes in the kitchen but the stress will get to him. Paul the pastry chef (Samuel Roukin) is Jewish and talks about politics and is perhaps based on Wesker who worked in kitchens like these as a pastry chef.
These workers are on split shifts. We see them exhausted after the lunch serving, the Irishmen formerly perfectly coiffed Dirk Bogarde style, dishevelled after cooking fried fish for 750 diners, only to know that in a few hours they will have to start again for the supper crowds. As Peter says, "You sweat, the steam comes off your back." There is national rivalry and volatility between the immigrant workers and the performances are convincing. Tom Brooke is very intense as Peter, Rory Keenan industrious as Kevin and Samuel Roukin calm as Paul.
The end of the First Act sees a wonderful synchronised, poetic movement sequence with two waitresses on wires rising aloft the chefs who are arcing with knives and sieves. Wesker says his play was designed to show the dehumanising effect of working under such pressure. The beauty of the direction contrasts with the grim toil in the kitchen but somehow the play seems strangely mundane, saying too little of significance but I wouldn’t have missed Bijan Sheibani’s lyrical episodes for all the tea in China.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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