How could the Single Gourmet Traveller resist the temptation to buy tickets for a play at the National Theatre called, The Kitchen? It must be the first time I’ve bought tickets for a play based just on its title rather than because I admire the playwright or the director or because a famous actor is to star in it.
Arnold Wesker’s play is set in 1957 and was first produced at The Royal Court in 1959. It is set within the kitchen of the Tivoli restaurant, which serves meals to about 2,000 people a day, where the emphasis is on good value rather than quality. As the huge cast of thirty actors gradually assembles on the stage for the beginning of the kitchen’s day, rivalries, jealousies and prejudices start to play out. Each member of this kitchen team has one small part to play in the whole: they prepare only vegetables, or fried fish, or pastry or meat. There is some irony early on when one of the Cypriot kitchen porters, Dimitri, brings out a home-made radio. One of the others, suitably impressed, asks why he’s working in a kitchen, why not a factory. But in a factory, Dimitri says, you spend all day doing just one small action over and over again … He fails to see that this is exactly what all the members of the kitchen are doing. It was Wesker’s intention – having worked in kitchens himself – to show the dehumanisation of such work; how the repetitive drudgery of doing the same small thing over and over again eventually defeats the soul. It is the proprietor, Mr Marango, who understands the value of this in the bigger picture. To pay good workers well to hone their skills on one action to make a valuable whole. His restaurant – his kitchen – is a success. But for him, paying his workers a good wage is enough; he doesn’t expect to give them more. Certainly no praise, not even, it appears as the play progresses, the right to dreams.
It is Peter, the young German boiled fish cook, who challenges the mechanical and soulless way they work and live. In a quieter scene in the middle of the play when fewer are on stage, he challenges some of the other staff to tell their dreams. Yet his own dream seems so inaccessible to him, that he cannot voice it, and in the end, the hopelessness of his position breaks him.
The Kitchen is very much a play of its time: post-war, we see people denied security and even a good meal on the table for so long now yearn to make their lives solid again. Peter, in love with the waitress Monique, can’t persuade her to leave her husband, even though she is pregnant with his child, because her husband is about to buy a house. One cook says that yes, he did once work somewhere that produced good quality meals, but he worked for money now.
The play is brilliantly staged as the actors move about the kitchen in a choreographed, almost balletic way that during the height of the busy lunchtime, is an awesome display. Though no actual food appears on stage, the flames on the hobs look real and the actors chop and carve and whisk with the actions of accomplished chefs. Jeremy Lee, head chef at the Blueprint Cafe, was consultant for their training. As a whole, I found it a play that gets better in the thinking and talking afterwards; not one that completely engaged me at the time. The first half was very slow and there seemed to be too many characters, with none standing out to connect with. We wondered at the interval quite where it was all going and hoped it was building to something a little more dramatic at the end. It was interesting to read in the programme that Wesker wrote it as one act with no interval but was persuaded by his first director to add the quiet scene mentioned above; one can see the action would have been all too monotonous without it. Of course, in many ways this relentless monotony reflects the dehumanisation of the environment that Wesker aimed to highlight, but for a theatre production to work well, one needs a change of pace. The second half moved towards a dramatic and, for me, a searingly painful ending. Is this revival a potent message for our time: that in these days of recession and financial challenge and insecurity, must we too give up our souls to survive?