Great chefs are theatre to their fingertips – witness Nigella’s practically burlesque baking. But is there dramatic flair in the austere backstage graft of a 1950s London restaurant?
Arnold Wesker’s doleful and authentic portion of working-class life is impressively spiced up by director Bijan Sheibani and his movement director Aline David. As the waiters and waitresses of The Tivoli plate up for the rush hour, they fill the Olivier with a ballet of stress and stainless steel.
There are times in Wesker’s overcrowded first half when you wish that Gordon Ramsay would barge in and impose a face and a focus to the white-shirted blokes. But Wesker’s socialist dramas are the opposite of celebrity culture; they paint an underclass and its milieu through choppy, accurate brush strokes of dialogue.
One of the National’s great strengths is its ensemble work; another is the scope for design and ‘The Kitchen’ makes great use of both. Giles Cadle’s set, with its roaring gas burners and beautifully choreographed panic, is superb.
Wesker doesn’t give the waitresses very much to do – they collect the odd chop, and routinely crush the men’s dreams. But the male cast presents an intriguing melting pot of ’50s East End multiculturalism: Germans alongside Jews, Italians, Irishmen, Greeks and cockneys.
The first half is helter skelter but the second opens with the kind of exhausted, exhilarated lull that will be recognisable to anyone who has ever worked like a maniac for several hours in mixed company. Wesker inserted it in a late draft of the play and it’s the interlude that lifts the play into a more highly crafted expression of the rhythm of working life.
Peter, a German fish chef, emerges as a sidelong sort of hero: Tom Brooke brings a famished, Pinocchio-like yearning to the role of a man whose generous instincts are turning as sour as the soup. As ‘The Kitchen’ ratchets up to its climax, Peter protests to the proprietor, who asks him what else he wants from life apart from work, food and money. Half a century later it’s a question that still hangs, unanswerable for some, unaskable for others.