Review – The Kitchen, National Theatre

Wednesday 7 September 2011

The Whingers have admit to a guilt-free pleasure: they enjoy the Final Destination franchise.

Only the night before their trip to The Kitchen the Whingers were eagerly lapping up the fifth and – in their opinion – best one yet, gasping, wincing, screaming and hooting with laughter at almost every moment; it’s quite literally eye-popping and not just because it is (of course) in 3D.

Naturally it’s the same story told yet again with different visual punchline payoffs in each inventively grisly death. But the fun is the set up for each demise, focusing on the threat of the mundane, a paper cup on top of a water-cooler, a screw coming loose or a an electric fan.

In the latest instalment the central character just happens to work in a busy restaurant kitchen. Imagine the potential for death and disfigurement among the deep-fat fryers, the ham slicers and the Sabatier knives. How we laughed.

Which brings us in an even more roundabout way than usual to a new production of The Kitchen complete with gas hobs which seem to burn throughout, pans bubbling away on stoves, frying pans heating and kitchen knives galore. How – with all that potential danger lurking on a stage – could the Whingers possibly settle to the play? There was so much that could go so horribly wrong. Throughout it all Phil was on edge and in a right old tizzy, fearing an accident.

Arnold Wesker‘s 1957 play (first produced in 1959) is an extravagance not only for its extensive and detailed restaurant kitchen set (Giles Cadle) but for its cast of 30 – something that only the National Theatre (or a school) could possibly contemplate*. Wesker may be known for his kitchen sink dramas but this throws in everything beyond the kitchen sink.

It’s basically a back-stage story, a slice and dice of one day in the life of those behind the scenes at The Tivoli restaurant. There are lots of characters to digest, lots of banging of pots and pans, a keen sense of the boredom and of the pressures of feeding 2,000 covers. And of course there are the romances, the petty squabbles and the racism. No one, it seems, can stand the heat of this kitchen. It could be a pre-watershed episode of The F Word.

Aided by movement director Aline David, director Bijan Sheibani has choreographed the ensemble and general frenzy to magnificent effect. The strong ensemble cast are unable to diffuse a stand-out central turn from Tom Brooke (who the Whingers earmarked in Jerusalem) as a sensitive and manic young German fish-boiler Peter. It’s all very impressive.

But Phil had even more to worry about than the accidents that could happen amongst the boiling pans. He had hoped this might merit an entire chapter in his long-simmering Food-On-Stage thesis but despite the hyper-realism of the set, the preparation and cooking of the food turned out to be all mimed, a practice specified by Wesker in the text apparently. If only Phil had done some research before booking! Tragically there wasn’t a single veal cutlet or peeled potato in sight.

Notwithstanding this sad omission, Phil was nevertheless glued to the action thanks to his multiple food hygiene neuroses. For not only did characters sit on the work surfaces they walked on them, put rubbish bins on them, wiped spoons underneath their armpits and even after touching bin lids were never seen to wash their hands before returning to food prep. And what they did with tea towels didn’t bear thinking about.

You might as well let your cats wander freely over your kitchen surfaces (as Andrew does) and have done with it. Phil hadn’t been so mortified since Meera Syal’s pedal bin lid disgrace in Shirley Valentine.

What if anything the play was really getting at we really could not tell you. The Whingers struggled with ideas of kitchen as institutional allegory and speculated on the capitalists’ dehumanised view of workers but came to no conclusions. There was some mention of the United Nations but despite the multi-national composition of the kitchen staff we found ourselves unable to make the idea rise, souffle-like, into something worth chewing on. We concluded it was a rather indulgently scaled post-war period piece but that it was interesting to see it just because it was there.

Andrew said he would give Final Destination 5 a five-glass rating. Sadly (and probably because the National’s production is so supremely well-marshalled that nothing went wrong) because of that The Kitchen must be marked down…


* Yes we do know Stephen Daldry directed it at the Royal Court’s most expensive ever production in 1994 because Phil was there.

Congratulations to the NT for bringing back the mobile phone warning just before the play begins. They teased us briefly, introducing a warning at Season’s Greetings then seemed to drop it. Hopefully it’s back for good. No mobiles went off, you could hear an imaginary julienned carrot slice drop. Which no doubt would have gone straight back in the pan unwashed if we’d seen the real thing.


14 Responses to “Review – The Kitchen, National Theatre”

  1. Meant too say, DO have a go at Michael Billington’s Wesker Quiz.

    I scored 3 out of a possible 10

    “Must try harder and get to know the remarkable range of Wesker’s work, from The Kitchen onwards”

  2. pb Says:

    Excellent. This sounds like a classic National production that I don’t really need to see – lovely set, good acting, but nothing to shout about.

  3. bels Says:

    I thought this production was utterly appalling. Tom Brooke – what an amazing actor… and his little face at the end of Act 2 ALMOST made the fact we had sat through two and a half hours of this drivel bearable. but not quite. Lots of waitressing doing agressive fifties walking whilst telling ‘TWO PLAICE’ and the occasional drama of a dropped plate does not make for an interesting evening of theatre. This idea should have not made it past the discussion stage. No production, no matter how socially ‘relevant’ should be allowed to be this boring. I fell asleep twice.

    • tfk Says:

      completely agree! 3 of us went last night that 8 hrs of life wasted. there were noticeable empty seats for second half. Two plaice was about the only line we could hear during the frenzy section. stories wasted no drama AT ALL, the tramp was the most interesting scene and they let him leave!!!! Save your money, sit in westfield for 2 hrs and people watch.

  4. bels Says:

    Goodness that last section was appallingly written. Obviously I meant to say, ‘lots of waitresses doing aggressive fifties walking whilst yelling ‘TWO PLAICE’… etc.

  5. AliBenAli Says:

    I quite liked the first half and loved the second… except the singing! Cheap seats the best for the Busby Berkeley-style view.

  6. Overall it was throughly enjoyable, better than I had expected it to be.

  7. Andrew Kay Says:

    Very disappointing. It’s a great play but this was like Master Chef do drama, too glossy and slick and lacking sweat and an oppressive atmosphere. I thought it had an unwelcome air of the restaurant scene from Hello Dolly! I wanted to shoot the flying waitresses.

  8. Julia Eccles Says:

    There may have been a deathly silence from the mobile phone brigade but my evening was ruined by the cacophony of the rustle of sweet papers, the tinkling of ice in plastic cups and the popping of water bottles from the army of under 26’s and their £5 tickets – National please stop people from eating and drinking in the auditorium, it does not enhance the experience. Otherwise boys agree with you entirely!

  9. 365SM Says:

    I agree with ” Samantha Newberry ” its enjoyable and I like it……Keep up the Good work……for future I am looking forward to it.

  10. Boz Says:

    I quite enjoyed this (for what that’s worth), but I can’t help feel it probably had more to say in 1959 than it does in 2011.

    And that’s all I have to say. Which is fairly damning, really.

  11. Brain tree Says:

    I noticed they were literally giving away tickets for the live filming on Thursday 6th October. Is it not selling well?

  12. Paul D. Says:

    Saw this play last night. Thought I and my partner were dreaming – read the crits in the Times, Indie and God Help me the Telegraph, were they atr another event? This was flat as a pancake. What were we missing?

  13. murph Says:

    Technically well executed and very clever. But…

    Utterly banal storyline, punctuated by hyperventilation and shouting by characters which nobody had a chance to connect with, and, hence, were shallow. It was like being on the set of East Enders. Trash.

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