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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Olivier)


  Bruce Myers and Craige Els (bottom left)/ Ph: Marc Brenner

Arnold Wesker’s 1959 melodrama The Kitchen isn’t a particularly good play, but its theatrical potential is immense. As the author commandeers a busy kitchen as a metaphor for the human condition, actions speak louder than words.
Here’s life, as we know it, in microcosm. Petty jealousies, work-place love affairs, racism and unfulfilled dreams are the featured items on this particular menu. Side dishes include a knife fight, a scalding, wholesale destruction of property and a miscarriage, all flambéed, quite literally, with a climactic burst of flame when a highly strung German chef called Pete (Tom Brooke), frustrated both by the job and an unfulfilled love affair with Monique (Katie Lyons), a married waitress, breaks a key gas lead to the ovens.
The play, divided into three distinct sections, takes place during a lunch and dinner service at the Tivoli restaurant, whose 75-year-old owner, Marango (Bruce Myers) employs a staff of 30 chefs, kitchen help and waitresses to serve upwards of 2,000 meals a day.
The lunch service – with 1500 covers – is the most frenetic and exhausting. There’s a mid-afternoon lull during which the staff members relax and reveal something about their inner selves, followed by the less hectic but still demanding dinner service.
Of the hard-working employees, only a handful make their presence felt. Monique and Peter are the nominal leads, while in lesser roles there’s Alfredo (Vincenzo Nicoli), an elderly chef, Max (Ian Burfield), a loud-mouthed, bigoted butcher, Gaston (Stavros Demetraki), a Cypriot in charge of the grill, and Paul (Samuel Roukin), a Jewish pastry chef who just gets on with the job.
The newest recruit is a young Irishman called Kevin (Rory Keenan) in charge of fried fish, and this being his first day at work he is understandably discombobulated by the frantic pace of the service.
Trouble is, it’s hard to care much about any of them, so swept up are they (and we) in the sheer physical activity of the play.
Wesker’s message, however, is crystal clear: relentless, unremitting labour is brutal and dehumanising. It robs men and women of their dreams and imprisons them in a futile no-man’s-land from which it is impossible to escape.
It’s a decent enough theme for a play as was demonstrated in 1921 by Elmer Rice in The Adding Machine (1921), an expressionistic drama about a white-collar worker called Zero who, after being exploited by his boss, finally murders him.
There’s nothing expressionistic about The Kitchen. On the contrary, the text is very realistic – as Stephen Daldry revealed in his stunning 1994 revival for the Royal Court.
Director Bijan Sheibani’s National Theatre staging, on the other hand, often works against the text, interpreting it as a ballet, almost, where every gesture and movement is choreographed to within an inch of its life. There’s even a sequence in which the various sections of the kitchen are divided up as an orchestra might, with boss Marango jumping on a table and conducting them.
This may not be what Wesker originally intended – but such conspicuous stylisation goes some distance in reconciling some of the credibility problems with which the author saddles himself, the main one being just how the kitchen copes with 2,000 meals a day!
In realistic terms that’s an awful lot for a kitchen the size of the Tivoli’s, whose menu includes lobster salad, roast chicken, veal with spaghetti, roast beef, roast pork, entrecote steak, veal cutlets, hamburgers, plaice, salmon, turbot, trout, halibut, cod, plus a variety of desserts.
The villain of the piece, apart from the stifling, energy-sapping kitchen itself, is the exploitative capitalist Marango, who, after the frustrated Paul throws his wobbly with the gas pipes, confronts him with the question, “What more do you want? What is there more, tell me? What is there more? 
And actually, he has a point. Peter has been fully employed for three years and earns good money. It is not the boss’s fault that he no longer enjoys the job or that the environment has robbed him of his dreams. If he’s so unhappy, why doesn’t he just leave?
Wesker was 28 when he wrote The Kitchen, and while his idealism is admirable, it isn’t always dramatically convincing.
Still, 52 years after its premiere the play’s energy remains intact; Giles Cadle’s set is strikingly effective, melding the real with the theatrical; and Dan Jones’ music and sound effects are excellent. You actually hear the sizzle of meat being pan-fried, though, in keeping with Wesker’s stage directions, no actual food is in evidence.
All the performances impress.

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