Arnold Wesker's The Kitchen
, originally written for a competition in 1959 (in the programme notes he asks us not to be too harsh on the judges who didn't award it the prize; where does
Wesker get this reputation for thinking very highly of himself?) is the last of this year's Travelex plays in the Olivier and is, frankly, a rather odd concoction. On Giles Cadle's circular set of a restaurant kitchen, dozens of chefs and waitresses bustle around, a variety of nationalities who sometimes form their own cliques, sometimes reach out to other groups in surprising ways. We see the kitchen from the moment it opens, gradually getting busier until by the end of the first act it's frenetic, occasionally breaking into moments of cleverly choreographed action as they deal with the lunchtime rush. We get hints of the various stories behind the 30-odd characters but very little to get to grips with and certainly for this first hour it's neither a coherent play nor a movement piece; for all the frenzied action there's a lack of momentum. I went into the interval not really knowing what it is I was watching.
I found the second half an improvement, we return during the afternoon lull as most of the staff are out on a break, and get some quieter moments with the few who've stayed behind discussing their hopes and dreams. The story focuses more on German fish chef Peter (Tom Brooke) who jitters around the stage giving rather a big performance - I found myself thinking Brooke was born at the wrong time and silent movie comedies were missing one of their stars. Not that he's anything less than interesting as ever but it's rather an unusual performance. Things come to a head during what should be the quieter evening service but with the many stories going on you always feel like there's something you're missing. Bijan Sheibani is usually one of my favourite directors but this year he repeatedly seems to be being given impossible material and a few odd choices don't help the whole thing gel together. (The way food preparation is shown doesn't seem to have a consistent theme: There's no actual food on stage and the "cooking" is somewhat expressionistic stirring somewhere in the vague vicinity of a saucepan; but real water and oil are used to provide steam and sizzle, which just ends up making for confused imagery.) Lots of good performances and some of the visuals are striking but although the second half is an improvement the whole just doesn't hang together, never quite deciding what it's meant to be. (I, and people I overheard on the way out, preferred Act 2, Andy preferred Act 1. But since Andy also liked Chicken Soup With Barley
a lot more than anyone else seemed to, I think he just likes to be deliberately perverse where Wesker is concerned.)The Kitchen
by Arnold Wesker is in repertory until the 9th of November at the National Theatre's Olivier.