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Theatre review: The Kitchen

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General

04.10.2011

Prestat has a long association with the theatre. Loyal customers include such theatrical greats as Sarah Bernhardt in the 1910s and Sir John Gielgud and Dame Peggy Ashcroft in the 1950s – joined today by Olivier Award winner Adrian Lester. Neville Croft, former owner of Prestat, was a playwright whose writing career was sadly curtailed after drunkards interrupted press night of his West End play All Year Round in October 1959. In memory of Neville Croft, we now publish the occasional theatrical review.

The Kitchen at The National Theatre

Sir Arnold Wesker is now a grand old man of the theatre having first made his name as a playwright in the 1950s and ‘60s. He is probably best known for his 1962 play Chips With Everything that examined the life of a corporal in the British army.

I remember performing in the latter in a school production and The Kitchen, Wesker’s first major work written in 1957, is a drama that similarly focuses on earthy people toiling in ordinary jobs. The closest comparable playwright is probably Arthur Miller and the setting is a kitchen of a large West End restaurant (think Simpson’s In The Strand).

The National Theatre throws (forgive the pun) the kitchen sink at this production: a spectacular and lavish set and a beautifully choreographed performance by an excellent ensemble cast. If anything, the production outshines the material. Waitresses float through the air and the director constantly plays with the theme of time (both its varying pace and rhythm).

I sensed that this emphasis on time, though interesting and welcome, was probably not to the forefront of Wesker’s mind when penning the play. The characterisation is universally strong and the tension of a functioning kitchen with a multicultural staff – from which the drama of the piece is drawn – is entirely accurate.

(Prestat fact: what was true in 1957 was true in 1896 and is true today. The first dozen employees of Antoine Dufour, the founder of Prestat, were all from continental Europe. A principal challenge of Prestat’s kitchen remains the mix of nationalities – few of whose first language is English.)

The Kitchen is not without its weaknesses. The first act builds to an extraordinary crescendo as the demands of lunch at the great restaurant peak. It’s engaging, humorous and clever in equal measure. The second act, therefore, is post-climax and as a consequence comes as something of an anti-climax.

In the second act Wesker sketches out the idea of the restaurant’s owner as God and the kitchen a Union of Nations that should not question his authority. It’s an interesting proposition. “If you don’t like paternalistic capitalism, get out of the kitchen,” seems to be the moral of the story.

Whether it is a moral that Wesker agrees with is uncertain. The play benefits from not being didactic but its corresponding weakness is a lack of narrative. The Kitchen is a slice of life but, like life itself, is somewhat imperfect.

Chocolate Rating: 3½ Violet Crèmes out of 5

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