Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Dream Kitchen.

To the National to see a preview of Arnold Wesker's superb fifties drama The Kitchen. It's a fantastic reminder of the way in which, for a brief period, British playwrights had a fascination for the sociological and economic structures that held our country together.

Set behind the scenes at the Tivoli restaurant an international cast of chefs, cleaners and waitresses work together to try and keep the 2,000 covers a day flowing to the customers out front; their co-existence only made possible by the economic need they all have to survive in London. There are tensions. Peter and Hans are on a post war reconciliation exchange scheme swapping British and German chefs, Max the butcher wonders whether the gas chambers weren't an efficient way to get rid of criminals, Paul is trying to find some peace and quiet in which to piece his life back together after a failed marriage. Others deal, thieve, flirt, swear and somehow keep it together despite the heat and stress of their work.

The play is marvellously balanced with each individual story spun gently like a plate to create a dizzying impressionistic effect overall. Wesker's genius, mostly through the sure fire way he controls the tempo, is to ensure none of these stories drop and we're left in no doubt that beyond the rituals and routines of survival, that each worker is in search of the space in which to nurture their own dreams.

At times Bijan Sheibani's direction works against this. Time is made oddly relative, frozen at moments, slowed at others, which although suggesting that some of the characters are on the brink of sanity, occasionally impedes on the flow of the text. This is most apparent in the wonderful set piece service at the end of act one where flying waitresses, and choreographed dance undermines the sheer breathtaking ability of the kitchen staff to deliver the volume of food demanded by the customers. The spectacle is there already. The embellishment unnecessary.

For all that the revival is timely and I was struck by how contemporary this play, about migrant workers negotiating between cultures whilst working in the service of the invisible affluent, remains. As a metaphor for the symbiotic structures that capitalism provokes it works brilliantly.

The anarchic ending offers no solution, but, in its own way, makes a political and humanist statement every bit as powerful and challenging as Nora's infamous door slam at the end of Ibsen's A Doll's House. Both are masterpieces of the well made play.

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