Arnold Wesker’s The Kitchen was originally staged as a Sunday night ‘production without décor’ at the Royal Court, on a princely budget of £100. Skip forward fifty or so years and the set – a massive open plan kitchen with no less than twenty burning stoves – is The Kitchen‘s spiciest ingredient. The play itself is less potent; a great melting pot of ideas and cosmopolitan characters, but really just a taster course in Wesker’s talents.
The plot is as sprawling as the gargantuan set, which fills every last inch of the Oliver stage. Countless juicy plays cower beneath this whirlwind tour of a busy and bruising kitchen in 1950s London. Nevertheless, although The Kitchen might hint at remote complexities, with swathes of subplots unexplored, it actually feels a bit thin. This is an energetic exploration – but never a sustained examination – of a rapidly changing and expanding London population.
Director Bijan Sheibani never quite decides on a tone and it feels as if he’s deliberating whether or not to take the play seriously. At times, the show feels urgently realistic and, at others, frozen and surreal. The most useful aspect of the stage action is the sheer effort the chefs put into their work; the furious pace at which they whisk, the number of sizzling dishes simultaneously on the go and the amount of sweat that goes into each starter.
But the frozen sections, as various characters are isolated from the surrounding mayhem, feel like an admission of guilt; an attempt to claw some clarity from an undoubtedly chaotic play. And whilst the choreographed movements of the chefs are aesthetically pleasing, the idea of these balletic cooks suddenly working in synch doesn’t fit with the otherwise belligerent atmosphere.
The play never settles and although the central ‘dream’ scene allows for some more serene reflection, it’s no surprise to learn this segment was interpolated much later on. There are some beautiful whispers of poetry here, as chef Peter (Tom Brooke) urges his mechanised colleagues to think for themselves, but it strains rather than thickens the play proper.
It is the work and not the words that stops The Kitchen sinking altogether. Act 1 ends as the orders start flooding in and legions of waitresses make insane demands of the already over-stretched kitchen staff. Yet, although earlier dialogue touches upon the dehumanising effect of this relentless work, it seems, at least to me, that the chefs revel in their speedy service, as short skirted waitresses hover above their heads.