National Youth Theatre
The Tramshed, Shoreditch
We all know of Nigella, Gordon, Jamie and Delia and you've probably even heard of Mrs.Beeton, but could you name Britain's first ever celebrity chef? Thankfully the National Youth Theatre's latest production, penned by James Graham, recounts the very man's rise to fame from humble beginnings in France.
Alexis Soyer escaped the French revolution of 1830, fled to Britain and started his career cooking in a variety of kitchens across the British Isles. With the aid of his two trusty sidekicks and a lot of perseverance, Soyer managed to rise to the top and land a job at the Reform Club, which would make him both rich and famous.
Graham's script cleverly joins the biographical with the theatrical and is a clear recipe for success. Many of the characters are clear eccentrics, providing a wonderful opportunity for playful characterisation and re-interpretation: in this production Florence Nightingale is more a butcher than a bulldog and swears like a trouper. Food puns abound, but there is also tenderness and romance, sorrow and hardship, and even time to explore the period's sexism and racism.
Graham's script does not shy away from alluding to the contemporary and some of the biggest laughs of the evening arise from these very allusions. When Soyer expresses his relief that in London he will be safe from stabbings, the audience found the fact that he was residing in Peckham most amusing. Another such occasion was when one character expressed reservations about the cost of the Great Exhibition and the Crystal Palace's longevity, reminding us that large scale events, be they Exhibitions or Olympics, have always had their critics.
James Walker in the lead role adopts a faultless French accent and plays Soyer with bags of flamboyant French charm. His courting scene with painter Emma Jones is most tender and they both portray a youthful awkwardness in trying to express their true feelings. As Jones, Hannah Morrish successfully inhabits a wide range of challenging emotions, from young love to the strains of marriage, not forgetting a most horrific incident one stormy night. She succeeds in every scene and possesses a great sense of maturity and experience in her portrayal of the role.
The cast of forty play various parts throughout and their physical theatre sections are particularly impressive. On their backs, they become waves, with feet pedalling against one another as Soyer floats from England to France.
The set, designed by James Button, is most adventurous and at first resembles the Master Chef studio, with four workspaces set up and in action. Units are wheeled on and off and jewellery is fashioned out of whisks, spoons and scourers. Baguettes become weapons and rolling pins rifles, all in the name of theatre. This enforces and strengthens the overall concept and reminds us that the act of cooking is itself most theatrical.
The play starts very slowly and is quite muddled, with cast members darting about the space, pancakes being cooked and orders being shouted. Although this conveys the chaos of the kitchen, it appears as confused chaos and does not actually add anything to the piece. The first act could do with a little chopping itself and this clunky, hustle and bustle prologue would do well to be sacrificed. There is also a touch of the superfluous throughout; a lift which isn't really needed, but looks nice, and an almost constant presence of as many NYT members as possible, but these are minor quibbles in an enjoyable evening's entertainment.
At one point in the play Soyer signs copies of his cookery book - a true symbol of his fame and it interesting to note that signed copies of Ruth Cowen's book, Relish - the extraordinary life of Alexis Soyer, Victorian Celebrity Chef - are available to buy at the box office. Whose celebrity status is really being celebrated here? Cowen may have provided the inspiration for the piece, but the glory here belongs to the National Youth Theatre's young performers and tech crew.
Playing until 18th September 2010
Reviewer: Simon Sladen