Theatre Review – 'The Kitchen'

Posted by Alexander Hay

Arnold Wesker's glimpse at post-war, post-rationing Britain, where the temperature is just heating up literally and figuratively, makes a welcome return to the National Theatre

Boiling over in The KitchenThe dehumanising grind of work, where everything runs at breakneck speed, is brought sharply into focus in Arnold Wesker’s blackly funny 1959 play The Kitchen, revived in Bijan Sheibani's absorbing new production at the NT’s Olivier auditorium.

The play is set in the kitchen of the Tivoli, an enormous busy West End restaurant in a London only just freed from the constraints of rationing, with the orders piling up for a post-war feast of soup, fish cutlets, omelettes and fruit flans.

Thrown together by their work, chefs, waitresses and porters from across Europe – English, Irish, German and Jewish – argue and flirt as they race to keep up with the frenzied working rhythms of this highly pressurised environment.

Peter, a high-spirited young cook, seems to thrive on this pressure. In between preparing dishes, he manages to strike up an affair with married waitress Monique, the whole time dreaming of a better life. But in the all-consuming clamour of the kitchen, where the workers toil to serve 2,000 customers a day, nothing is far from the brink of collapse.

Wesker here provides a revelling microcosm of the melting-pot of 1950s London with a number of different nationalities working alongside each other in sometimes uneasy harmony. But the character development is rather sketchy and the drama somewhat thin. Wesker is more concerned with exploring the tyranny of the world of work, its relentlessness and its repetitiveness.

Sheibani employs a 30-strong cast to bring Wesker’s ambitious documentary-style drama to life, of whom Tom Brooke as Peter, Katie Lyons as Monique and Bruce Myers as the proprietor stand out.

But the real star of the show is Giles Cadle, whose superbly designed set complete with boiling pans, burning gas jets and roaring ovens makes you feel you are actually there and ready to put in an order.

A further word of praise should also be given to movement director Aline David – the development from the leisurely start to the day, with its desultory chat and gossip, building into a breathtakingly choreographed sequence, all set to music as the workers toil ever more frenetically and the proprietor stands on a table as if conducting an orchestra.

And to close, surely the time has come for far more revivals of this long-neglected dramatist’s plays? Just a thought.

Plays in repertory until November 9

Box office: 0207 452 3000

Press: 0207 452 3333

By Laurence Green

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