A theatrical ballet of knives, social commentary and resentment. The food might not be great, but the play is
The NT Live production of The Kitchen by Arnold Wesker, screened at Queen's Film Theatre, is an impressive feat of theatrical acumen. It is challenging, ambitious and technically brilliant.
Set in post-Second World War England, The Kitchen is a story of cooks, chefs and bottle-washers of different nationalities, castes and creeds. Few of them like each other, some of them hate each other, and racial epithets are bandied about with casual venom.
Yet twice a day they must all come together to prepare lunch and dinner for the restaurant. They are paid well, and work hard for it. What more is there to life than that?
Each of the 30 odd characters that cross the stage in The Kitchen get a chance to answer that question, whether they want money or something more ineffable. And it is when all 30 characters are on stage at the same time that the play is at its most delightful.
It is like a clockwork ballet, with the fast-moving, fast-talking actors the cogs that interlink and part and come together again. Everything is in motion, no-one is still and with every pass it gets faster and faster. Trying to keep up with it all, you end up nearly as breathless as the actors must be.
Yet at the same time, Director Bijan Sheibani is not afraid to play with silence. There are long moments where nothing is said on stage, letting the moment spool out at its own pace, confident that the audience is still enrapt.
Both Sheibani and Movement Director, Aline David, deserve every accolade heaped on them for those scenes alone. Not just for the sheer, spinning precision of the choreography, but because no matter how chaotic the stage gets, the audience is always looking in the right place at the right time.
Although, with all those names and faces to keep up with, it can be difficult to remember exactly who it is you are looking at. Nor does the play itself always make it clear which characters you should be committing to memory.
Signifers that would usually indicate an integral character – the first character we meet, the new arrival to the kitchen – sink without trace. It is a very effective bit of narrative manipulation by Wesker, keeping the audience edgy and attuned to the nuances on stage as they try to anchor the story.
German cook Peter gradually emerges as the dominant character in the plot. Played with spidery intensity by the ectomorphic Tom Brooke, Peter is the still hub around which the rest of the cast rotates.
Thriving in the pressurised atmosphere of the kitchen, he jibes and jabs at his co-workers. A trickster figure, a lanky Anansi, he imagines himself king of the kitchen. An illusion that cannot last.
Other actors who deserve mention include Rory Keenan as the pragmatic Irish cook Kevin, Katie Lyons as Peter’s constantly inconstant lover Monique, and Samuel Roukin’s earnest, weary pastry cook, Paul.
And it would be neglectful not to add the kitchen to the roster, for in its way it as much a character as any of the others. It is an amazing piece of set design, an apparently wholly functional restaurant kitchen complete with pots and pans and roaring ovens. The rasp of sharpening knives and the sing-song rhythms of the call and respond between the cooks serve to underline and interrupt the dialogue.
Informed by Wesker's own experience working in a kitchen, the interplay of the characters and the functioning of the kitchen itself is wholly convincing, although occasionally the mime-play of characters chopping invisible onions and slapping invisible fillets elicits a surreal humour.
The Kitchen is simply a stunning piece of theatre, one that demonstrates the theatrical acumen of every member of the cast and crew. The underlying questions of drudgery and the internal life of the working classes are ones still relevant today. Particularly, as is pointed out during the intermission, in the wake of the riots that took place during The Kitchen’s rehearsals.
It is an accomplished piece of theatre, one that testifies to the theatrical acumen of all involved. Yet while it is intellectually admirable, it is not a play to incite warm feelings. It invokes distance, deliberately keeping the audience at arms length. As one woman says on leaving, ‘It was good, but I don’t know if I liked it.’
The next NT Live production is Collaborators on December 1.