It is the 1950s and one of London’s busiest restaurants prepares for Friday night service, ready to deal with over a thousand customers. Glamorous waitresses weave expertly between the tables, glasses are raised and the clientele is happy. At least this is what we assume because the action in this play is actually set firmly behind the scenes in the kitchen, where things go much less smoothly.
The National Theatre has impressed many times in the past with its elaborate set design, and the same was true again with the current production of The Kitchen in the Olivier. Originally performed at the Royal Court in 1959 and based on writer Arnold Wesker’s own experiences of working in a busy restaurant kitchen, this is a play which has since been seen in more than 30 countries, something which poses a tempting challenge to each new director who dares to bring new life to it. In this case, the director is Bijan Sheibani and he has done a fine job here in presenting a fast paced and imaginative piece.
On a stage featuring a full kitchen – including working gas hobs, revolving doors and a cast of thirty – a level of basic choreography was always going to be necessary simply to avoid catastrophe. However, the gracefully shifting bodies displayed in the first act of The Kitchen are much more than just a Health and Safety requirement, they are a balletic execution. There are sequences with and without music that offer lyrical technique in equal measure. They flow with effortless ease and it is easy to forget that you are not watching a real restaurant kitchen at work.
The first act gives the feel and pace of working in a kitchen, with its long hours and stresses as well as the camaraderie that keeps the staff going. Snippets of conversation allow us insight into the main characters; Peter, a dreamer, desperately waiting for waitress Monique to leave her husband for him, Max, the butcher, angry and bigoted, always taking his rage out on non-British members of staff, Kevin, nicknamed ‘Irishman’, starts his first day at the restaurant in at the deep end, on a busy Friday night shift.
While the first act is funny and full of energy, the second act is sombre. You could be forgiven for thinking you are watching two different plays. The mood turns bleak, the characters are more introspective and the music is absent. The dark ambience of the second act came as a surprise, but it worked. The realisation that the playfulness and music of the first act were not to be carried beyond the interval became apparent and instead the character’s storylines took centre stage – Tom Brooke’s portrayal of Peter, as he slowly starts to unravel, is one that stands out amongst the rest.
There are many well-placed details that, despite the lack of actual food on stage, cleverly invoke the impression of a team of chefs hard at work. It is a play of contrasting halves and an intriguing piece of theatre that assembles a cast of strong performers, fantastic set and wonderfully subtle choreography to bring this restaurant kitchen vividly to life.
The Kitchen is on at the National Theatre until November 9th
Contributing Writer: Clare Ollerhead