The programme for this play is excellent. As Arnold Wesker’s The Kitchen was premiered in 1959, the programme gives a potted history of Britain in the late 1950s as well as a timeline of significant events in the country between 1945 – 59. We find that people faced various turmoils and disasters- some natural, many man made – just as we have been experiencing recently. Britain then was grappling with immigration, death penalty, riots, inflation, unemployment and the beginnings of the European Common Market. It is a timely but also an amusing reminder that nearly 50 years later we are still debating these very same issues and, no doubt, they will continue to be discussed 50 years from now. Ultimately, the programme gave me hope – people survived (or muddled through) crises then and we will do the same too.
With a renewed sense of optimism and hope, I took my seat, anticipating a play that I can relate to on many levels. What I got, instead, was an evening of passable enjoyment. Set in the kitchen of a London restaurant, the play opens slowly as a restaurant porter switches on the lights, puts the ovens on and fires up the stoves. These actions seem to take some time and we wonder if the rest of the play will continue in this languid fashion. Soon the kitchen is filled with an assortment of characters one expects in restaurant kitchens and the performance works up to a frantic pace – lunchtime orders, fraying tempers and mishaps. Involving a large cast in a kitchen, much of the first half is cleverly stylised choreography for which Movement Director Aline David deserves praises. But as the play went into its interval, some of the audience members around me were wondering what would be left of the play if it were stripped off the choreography.
The second half of the play opens at the post lunch period when the restaurant goes into a lull, during which, a few of the kitchen staff share their dreams with each other. It is with some sadness that we realise that none of these dreams are particularly aspirational or visionary. One says ‘I want women’ and another, ‘I want money’. Doing 18 hours a day, they are shackled by work and some of the older characters are embittered by work after serving decades in the same restaurant. As a theme, this will strike a chord with many in the audience but the portrayal of the restaurant boss as a ‘Mr Burns’ character does not deepen our sympathy for the play’s cause. This one dimensional view of ‘condemn capitalism and pursue your dreams’ is tedious propaganda.
The play lacks a plot and the staging of it, while clever, seems gimmicky after a while. Interestingly four people sitting in the same row as us didn’t return after the interval. And two women sitting to my right left 10 mins into the second half, probably bored of waiting for a plot or action. They did tell me at interval time that they were hoping there would be ‘a murder to spice up this play’. Kudos to the National Theatre for reviving this play but I wonder if a grounded production would have made this a more memorable evening than what we got.
The Kitchen runs until 9 November. Performance time is 2 hours and 20 mins with an interval. Tickets are available at the box office or call 020 7452 300.