“The Kitchen” at the National Theatre

Bijan Sheibani’s spirited revival of Arnold Wesker’s The Kitchen provides audiences with an insight into 1950s catering and post-war Britain. The acting is commendable, the production values high – but it is difficult to recommend going to see it.

The 30-strong cast perform impeccably. They convince us that The Kitchen is a working environment, overflowing with rows and romances, consuming their lives and making them fight to retain their individuality. Tom Brooke does especially well as the German chef Peter and becomes the focus of the plays finale. Along the way, Samuel Roukin impresses and Rory Keenan’s comedy skills stand out.

The mechanics behind running a massive restaurant are brought to life by Sheibani quite remarkably. Giles Cadle’s set echoes the mass of the Olivier Theatre, with space for the impression of chaos and enough cookers to make you worry about the National’s gas bill. With a touch of fantasy (cue flying waitresses) the kitchen is presented as another world.

But the kitchen isn’t another world. The first act serves as an extended entrée to deeper concerns about the place of work in our lives, using the “united nations” of kitchen staff to look at life after the war – and dreams of improvement that began when the fighting stopped.

Much humour comes from the dated nature of what’s on the menu – the characters dream of chicken Kiev as an adventurous dish – but the nostalgic appeal of The Kitchen mixes uncomfortably with its politics. The first act isn’t meaty enough to make us care about the characters, while in the second the politics are too dated to engage with.

The 1950s are in vogue along the South Bank and celebrating Arnold Wesker makes sense, but The Kitchen seems so much of its own time that reviving it, no matter how thoughtfully, fails to whet the appetite.

Until 9 November 2011

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Marc Brenner

Written 9 September for The London Magazine

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