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#96 The Kitchen at the National Theatre

November 9, 2011

Imagine 30 immensely talented performers chopping, cooking and cleaning on this set, and you'll have some idea of what The Kitchen looks like at full steam.

Back to the NT for another virtuoso show: The Kitchen is a 1957 play by the British playwright Arnold Wesker, showcasing life in a contemporary restaurant kitchen.

With over thirty actors, each playing a specialised food preparation role, and each with their own hopes, desires and disappointments, this is an ensemble piece which becomes a kind of Rube Goldberg contraption of endless meal production. Everything’s real in this elaborate set, except the food, which is wisely mimed into existence – and this team look like they could turn out a good spread, judging by their expertise with the invisible grub. Sometimes, in fact, the action turns into a kind of dreamlike dance, in which the action becomes hypnotically rhythmic – only for a character to break the spell with a complaint or another order for cutlets (The programme cutely lists the entire restaurant menu.)

So what’s it all about? The story whirls around a young couple who are trying to negotiate their way through to still waters of happiness past spouses, tempers, misunderstandings, broken dreams, and the demands of a 16-hour working day. But since there are so many characters to keep track of – and the movement (if not the action) never stops, it takes a while for the frenetic production to let the story shine through. The drama’s stronger in the second half, when we get to focus on a handful of players in the downtime between shifts. It doesn’t help that  the final moments seem like the end of a second act, with a whole missing chunk of post-climactic resolution that left us wondering about what happened next.

A cordon bleu-level display of theatrical prowess, then, but all in the service of a slightly underdone story.

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