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Review Round-up: Critics Feel Heat of Wesker's Kitchen

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Arnold Wesker’s The Kitchen, set behind the scenes in a large West End restaurant, opened at the NT Olivier last night (7 September, previews from 31 August 2011) as part of the National's Travelex £12 Season.

Bijan Sheibani helms a cast of over 30 in the post-war workplace play which premiered at the Royal Court in 1959 - the theatre also recently reviving his 1958 landmark work Chicken Soup with Barley.

Tom Brooke stars as the play's young cook Peter who, between preparing dishes, manages to strike up an affair with married waitress - all the time dreaming of a better life.

The Kitchen, which will play in rep with Mike Bartlett's new play 13 when it opens on 25 October (previews from 18 October), continues until 6 November 2011.

Michael Coveney

"Re-visited in Stephen Daldry’s coruscating, immersive production in 1994. The highest compliment I can pay Bijan Sheibani is that his new NT production… is every bit as good … The shape of this play… is everything: the staff assembles in the early morning and their chopping and slopping, sifting and basting reaches a frenzied climax with the lunchtime rush … Peter is clearly the main character, and the extraordinary Tom Brooke, as physically pliant as an elasticated question mark, makes of the temperamental young German an ironic magnet for everyone else’s madness and urgency … The kitchen is physically represented in steel and wooden work surfaces… but the ingredients are entirely imaginary … A wonderfully well drilled cast of thirty includes a bigoted old sweat from Vincenzo Nicoli, a gargantuan Jewish vegetable cook from Tricia Kelly, Rory Keenan as the new Irishman on fried fish… Katie Lyons as Peter’s married lover and Bruce Myers as the hapless proprietor, rising above the mayhem to literally conduct the operation as the steam rises along with the temperature."

Michael Billington

"Wesker's vision of life in the kitchen of a vast London restaurant remains a fine feat of dramatic organisation … The beauty of the play is that the action stems from the rhythms of work yet behind the frenzy lurks an awareness of life's unrealised potential. But, while Sheibani's production gets this across, it tends to blur the play's ingrained realism. Where Stephen Daldry's matchless 1994 production offered a portrait of a mechanised hell this stylised version treats the kitchen as a place of choreographed artistry … Even if Wesker's play is slightly softened, individual characters are sharply defined. Tom Brooke brings all his scrawny intensity and hint of suppressed mania to the German cook … For anyone unfamiliar with the play, it will doubtless be an overpowering experience. But I can't help feeling that Wesker's metaphor for the dehumanising impact of industrialised labour has been turned, with its seductive waltz-time music, into a celebration of synchronised movement."

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

"Almost 40 years ago I worked in a busy restaurant kitchen … It was undoubtedly the worst job I have ever had … That seems to have been Wesker’s view too … There are some 30 characters working dementedly in the kitchen of the London restaurant he depicts … Sheibani’s staging brilliantly breaks the bonds of what seems, on the page, to be a largely naturalistic drama … This often comic play shades into something close to tragedy as Wesker contemplates the cost of making people function as little more than cogs in a machine … The production, superbly designed by Giles Cadle with a brilliantly realised kitchen complete with boiling pans, burning gas jets and roaring ovens, and with its precision drilled choreography of the workers’ tasks in the kitchen, grips throughout. The huge acting ensemble is outstanding, bringing both truth and detail to their sketchily drawn characters, and by the end of the play, Wesker’s kitchen has come to resemble a vision of hell on Earth."

Fiona Mountford
Evening Standard

"Thank heavens for state subsidy, as not many theatres could afford the 30-strong cast that this 1959 play demands … Without Aline David's exemplary work it would be burnt food and empty tummies all round. David choreographs the cast into the frenetic working rhythms of the kitchen … Looking good gets a play only so far and Wesker's enormous line-up of characters leaves us feeling oddly under-nourished in Bijan Sheibani's production … How simple, for example, was it for passionate, troubled German fish chef Peter (Tom Brooke, terrifyingly intense) and his colleagues to find work in a country which, just over a decade before, had been the sworn enemy of their own? Wesker is more interested in exploring the tyranny of the world of work, its relentlessness and repetitiveness … One thing is abundantly clear, though: if you can't stand the heat, you should get out of The Kitchen."

Libby Purves
The Times

"There is a fierce warlike energy, even nobility, about a restaurant kitchen in full frenzy … Arnold Wesker had the kitchen experience in the 1950s, and dramatised it. It is fitting, and probably economically necessary too, that it should be the National which revives it now, given its huge cast of 31 … Aline David’s extraordinary choreography and Dan Jones’ soundscape combine with Sheibani’s inventive energy to turn the rising crescendo of orders, waitressing and cooking into patterns, even dances … For all its 60 years’ gestation it feels sharply relevant to our multicultural age … Beaky and manic, a long streak of nerves, Tom Brooke is that joker in the pack, desperate for love and family. Skilfully, frighteningly, he lets his teasing larks and romantic sulks mutate into a final explosion of impotent grief, destruction and despair … Marango, the owner, furious at the final devastation, asks the central question, rhetorical, uncomprehending. 'What more to give a man? He works, he eats, I give him money… tell me, what, what is there more?' The question has not dated."

- Tal Fox


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