Bijan Sheibani’s production of Arnold Wesker’s The Kitchen is not so much a play as an experience, a snapshot of the hot, heady, hectic goings-on in the kitchen of a top restaurant.
The anticipation of that hectic pace is set from the beginning, when the night porter enters Giles Cadle’s extraordinarily detailed set and lights all the gas hobs, ovens and burners one by one, their hum gradually intensifying as each one is lit.
It isn’t long before the workers who operate those hobs and ovens arrive in the kitchen, each taking up their station. With a cast of 30, the Olivier stage is soon packed with waitresses, chefs and sous-chefs, tea-makers and patissières, their grumbles, banter and laughter silenced by the prowling presence of proprietor Marango.
The Kitchen is a play of two distinct halves. The first sets the scene, introducing us to what seems a bewildering array of characters from all over the world: a clutch of Germans, an Italian, an Irish new boy, a Head Chef who seems to hail from Birmingham. Sheibani manages this vast cast by imposing a choreography on their actions; at times they chop and whisk to music, culminating in a beautiful scene in which Marango conducts his kitchen like an orchestra, a knife becoming his baton. Other moments are freeze-framed, allowing us to focus on a pair of characters while their colleagues are held in limbo. It is a clever device, helping the audience to pick out individual stories from the overwhelming whole.
However it is not until after the interval that the story comes through. Impressively staged though the first act is, there is little plot to speak of; it is in the second half that we start to get a real sense of the hopes and frustrations of Wesker’s characters, who are rooted firmly in the 1950s when the play was written. Romantic relationships are strained by unwanted pregnancies, tensions left over from the war simmer between staff; but Wesker’s overarching emphasis is on the frustration of the daily grind, which pummels people’s dreams like a mallet on a pork chop.
Though very much an ensemble piece, Tom Brooke stands out as German fish chef Peter, as does Rory Keenan as the Irishman unused to the pace of work demanded by Marango’s kitchen. The troupe of waitresses, clad in their brown 50s-style uniforms with white aprons, give the piece a kitsch appeal.
The real star of Sheibani’s production, however, is the staging. Cadle’s set is intricate in its detail, making full use of the Olivier stage. Orders are ‘written’ on a vast chalkboard which hangs over the kitchen, and at one point waitresses pop up and down on wires at the back of the stage, shouting their orders to the harried chefs below, effectively conveying the near-impossibility of keeping up with such demands. But given such lengths were employed to recreate a realistic kitchen, I do have one gripe: there’s no real food. Am I asking too much?