Review: The Kitchen, National Theatre
The secret of a good setting is often precisely its secrecy. Today, restaurant kitchens are a good deal more familiar to audiences than they would have been when Wesker’s retouched first play hit the Royal Court stage in 1959.
Cookery programmes have, in the past decade or so, moved from the home into the pressure cooker of the professional environment. From Hell’s Kitchen to Celebrity Masterchef, we’ve glimpsed inside the backstage bowels of restaurants often enough to know the heat of a busy lunchtime serving.
Following John Osbourne’s first shot, the Royal Court revolution was still in full-swing and Wesker’s play, eventually produced off the back of Chicken Soup with Barley and Roots, offered a rare viewing panel into the world of work. With that comes the working class, a hallmark of Tynan’s champions, and, in The Kitchen possibly for the first time, a multicultural melting pot.
Of course, these social factors means The Kitchen has retained its relevance fifty-two years later. It’s a long way from being stale, but its certainly no longer fresh.
With all this in mind, director Bijan Sheibani is right to treat the play expressively, rather than with the strict naturalism that Wesker might be associated. The problem is rather that, by beautifying the workplace, he misses the tone entirely.
Sheibani and his movement director Aline David give us symphonic choreography for the busy service periods. They sculpt a beautifully choppy sea of chefs; their white uniforms bubbling like a pan of boiling water. Arms clutching knives extend out of the mass and disappear back in slow motion. Utensils tap out rhythmic beats on metal implements. Waitresses circle the outside, collecting crockery on a round of the dancefloor. Two even get hoisted up on wires to complete the stage picture, freezing in elegant leaps, limbs extending.
This is the workplace as inhabited by Darcy Bussell and Carlos Acosta, as a sequence from Fantasia. The kitchen becomes a Rune-Goldberg machine, a conveyor belt both graceful and effete. Indeed there are moments where the stage picture resembles a tiered wedding cake, complete with an outer frosting of waitresses, or a merry-go-round turning jollily along. “In my last restaurant, you had to move like a ballet dancer,” says a new waitress, before pirouetting off, plates in hand.
“Ummm,” we purr, “How very pleasing on the eye.”
However, Wesker’s kitchen cannot be beautified. It needs gristle and grit. The knives need to be out. Tempers need to boil over. It needs to be that moment in Titanic where the engine room door opens to show sweating, coal-smeared goblins toiling endlessly. Wesker is not concerned with dignifying such work, but with showing its indignity. “You get used to anything if you have to,” is the recurring motto of the staff.
In such a well-oiled machine, through no fault of Tom Brooke’s knotted performance, German chef Peter begins to look less idealist revolutionary than spoilt brat. Peter is The Kitchen’s Jimmy Porter. Of course, he should have a pathetic edge, but that must come from his failure not only to enact his principles but to even offer a positive dream and the pettiness of his final protest. In this context, however, his dissatisfaction looks like ingratitude.
Even if Sheibani betrays the play, The Kitchen remains a good watch. With its cast of twenty-nine, it is a play crammed with personal stories and rivalries that hold your interest throughout, even if some of Wesker’s leads never come to fruition. Sheibani has found some beautiful, eloquent moments within. Peter’s arrogance and laziness is beautifully expressed in his unwillingness to even light his own cigarette. Giles Cadle’s set, though possibly too pristine, resembles a beige kiln and the combination of Mortiz Junge’s costumes and Mark Henderson’s lighting allows a scale of whiteness to express the purity of individuals at given moments. Not for nothing does Peter blend into his surroundings.
Moreover, there is some first-rate acting on show. Brooke catches Peter’s charisma without ever losing sight of his unattractiveness. Sinewy and skeletal, he is an inspired piece of characterful casting; all head, no guts. Sam Swann makes a sweetly sympathetic Dmitri, the lowly but likeable kitchen porter, and Samuel Roukin, an honest East End realist as pastry chef Paul. In fact, there’s great characterful work wherever you look, particularly from Katie Lyons, Marek Oravec, Tricia Kelly and Rory Keenan.
Photograph: National Theatre