National Theatre London
Until 9th November
This production of The Kitchen is spectacular in nearly every respect. The first thing you notice on entering the theatre is the brilliance of Giles Cadle’s set. Unnervingly claustrophobic, the back of the circular stage is small and cramped while, at the front, the floor slants towards the audience giving the sense that everything might tip into the first row. The set is framed by an enormous knife and fork, hinting that the characters in the play to come will be consumed – by the audience, or the restaurant proprietor, or by the force of their own prejudices and the stress of their lives. The set establishes a sense of excitement which is carried through in every minute of Bijan Sheibani’s production.
Written by Arnold Wesker in 1957, The Kitchen offers its audience twenty-four hours in the kitchen of an enormous West End restaurant where chefs, waitresses, porters and butchers fight and flirt their way through the gruelling day. With a cast of 30 there are many sub-plots competing for space but the play focuses on Peter, a young, idealistic German chef who is having an affair with a married waitress.
The first act of Sheibani’s production is electrifying: the night porter enters the kitchen and lights the gas of several ovens with apparently real blue flames. The rest of the workers gradually arrive to begin their morning tasks: cracking eggs, whisking sauce, rolling out pastry. This spectacle – with the brilliantly sinister accompaniment of sharpening knives – provides the climax of the first act and one wonders how such brilliance can possibly be followed.
But it is. In the second half Sheibani slows the pace right down, with more focus on the characters and politics. Despite the superb direction, occasionally Wesker’s script gets a little heavy handed: the Jewish chef hands his German colleague a symbolic rose, and at the end of the play the German is left with blood on his hands. Nonetheless the preoccupations of an early post-war Jewish writer are inevitably interesting, and the play feels authentically 1950s without being nostalgic. There is little to fault with this production: the acting is terrific all around but Tom Brooke as Peter and Samuel Roukin as the Jewish pastry chef are particularly strong, each shifting masterfully from a relaxed good-humour to seething rage. Rarely is theatre this well-staged or this exciting.