Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: The Kitchen Sink, Bush Theatre

Review: The Kitchen Sink, Bush Theatre

Like a Mike Leigh play with laughter lines where furrowed brows should be, The Kitchen Sink marks Tom Wells out as an extraordinary young writer.

Its title is an affectionate, gently ironic backwards nod to a once-fashionable style. Kitchen sink dramas are strict social realism famously championed by the Royal Court from John Osbourne onwards. Generally speaking, they’re depressing affairs: all squalor, frustration and hopeless dreams. Wells not only pulls that off, he punches through the other side with a comedy that cares.

Pipe dreams and nightmare pipes abound for a working class family in Withernsea, Yorkshire. Dad Martin’s milkround is dwindling from supermarket competition and his milk float is sinking out of service after twenty years. His two children have bigger dreams. Billy is off to Art College in London and Sophie is hoping for a black belt in ju jitsu. Mum Kath just wants a happy family and a fully functioning kitchen.

Wells charts a calendar year in the household, which is hugely affected by seismic change in the world beyond. The reality of the economic crisis puts paid to both high ambitions and lowly achievements.

Built into this is a younger generation’s fear of failure and subsequent self-sabotage: Billy almost talks himself out of his interview, Sophie belts her examiner and her boyfriend Pete struggles to pluck up the courage even to enter the house, let alone go in for the kiss. They are boom-time children, puffed with parental backing, but entering a crowded market.

Wells is nicely noncommittal in generational comparisons. It might seem better to dream naively than to be content with coasting, but there are moments when satisfaction and family seem more than enough to compensate for lack of ambition. After all, Martin and Kath’s hard and unrewarding graft is responsible for the home and the kids’ upbringing. Perhaps Wells is championing Pete, a lad with “a love for drains,” but what was it Socrates almost said about satisfied plumbers?

But all this is done with real aplomb. His characters say exactly the right things at the right times and some of the lines they come out with are unexpected delights. Wells also has the ability to hollow out a laugh into poignancy and then turn it inside out into a smile once more.

Once upon a time, The Kitchen Sink could well have reached the West End. It has just the right measures of cynicism and sentiment, humour and heart to attract a ‘night-out’ audience, but also the necessary lacing of astute – often rather damning – social critique to justify its importance.

Tamara Harvey directs beautifully, catching moods like waves and orchestrating her characterful cast in the round with both intuition and diligence. Steffan Rhodri plays Martin with a real deft touch, getting to grips with both good intentions and gruff, uncommunicative masculinity. Ryan Sampson is both brilliantly camp and sweetly tender, as is Lisa Palfrey as his mother, dispensing both hugs and advice without a word of complaint. Until, of course, a very unusual bout of waterworks on Christmas Day.

Best of all is Andy Rush as the nervy Pete. Despite swallowing his sentences, bumping into the furniture and never once working out what to do with his (presumably clammy) hands, he comes across as the most grounded of the lot.

Photograph: Tristram Kenton

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