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The Kitchen

Arnold Wesker
Royal National Theatre, Olivier Theatre
(2011)

The Kitchen

The works of Sir Arnold Wesker are undergoing a revival at present and he is clearly loving every minute of it. Following the success of Chicken Soup with Barley at the Royal Court, Bijan Sheibani takes a fresh look at the ultimate kitchen sink drama and does it proud.

The Kitchen is the antithesis of the well-made play that was still the staple theatrical fare when it was written. The play puts a microcosm of human nature under the microscope for a fascinating 2½ hours but has little interest in development of any plot.

Though technology has moved on so much in the last half century, the 1959 restaurant kitchen as realised by designer Giles Cadle on a circular stage, is little different from today's equivalent. The one thing that may shock audiences today is the smoking while on duty.

The play is a chilling (but certainly not literally) reminder that a chef's working milieu will be a great preparation for anyone facing a tortuous eternity pleasing Satan in fiery Hell.

Both the setting and the drama are hot, manic and at times deeply uncomfortable. Relationships are ephemeral as are hatreds, enjoyed or suffered at lunch and quite possibly forgotten by dinner.

All that really matters is enduring the pain and serving food that is adequate for the 1,500 customers of a second rate establishment with what seems today a laughably bland menu.

This is largely an ensemble performance with everyone getting some chance to make their mark but few remaining centre stage for long. However, Tom Brooke's Peter, one of two Germans in this league of nations and ironically a boiled fish cook, emerges as a protagonist as the evening develops.

He is described as "very mad" before even arriving and enthusiastically lives up to that billing. A manic depressive with a great sense of fun and a married mistress, Monique, sensitively played by Katie Lyons, Peter is totally unpredictable.

At times, he is a laugh, at others a wind-up, while in between he is quick to enflame and becomes the catalyst for an explosive finale.

Around them, all life can be observed, usually flying past at breakneck speed. During the early scenes, as we are coming to terms with the operation of the kitchen and its inhabitants, Sheibani and movement director Aline David introduce some lovely elements of physical theatre. This includes freeze frame and accelerated action that, with slapstick and some operatic and balletic allusions, give the kitchen something of the charm of the factory scenes in Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times, while also bringing to mind Steven Berkoff.

Having spent the first half of the play introducing characters and the business side of the operation, the writer gets a little more personal after the interval, allowing his own and some of the characters' philosophies to emerge further.

We also witness Peter's failing attempts to persuade pregnant Monique to leave her husband and have their child.

Brooke copes with a tricky part well, at his best when Peter is deeply depressed, which happens all too often. He also provokes the owner, a patriarchal cold fish named Marango and played by Bruce Myers, to expound his personal philosophy, which might be regarded as neo-Thatcherite Capitalism, a generation before that lady came into the spotlight.

The characterisation throughout is entirely convincing suggesting that Wesker, who apprenticed in just such a kitchen, borrowed liberally from life.

The Kitchen stands up surprisingly well to scrutiny over fifty years on and with Travelex £12 tickets available, should prove popular, especially with those who have ever worked in a restaurant and might enjoy seeing facsimiles of themselves or their colleagues re-created on stage..

Reviewer: Philip Fisher