National Theatre Live broadcast, Thursday 6th October, 2011
I was relieved to find no issues with the projection during this visit to Cineworld Birmingham for the latest broadcast from the National Theatre, allowing me to focus on the play.
And what a play it is! This is kitchen sink drama writ large. Arnold Wesker’s drama, first presented in 1959, is set in a busy restaurant kitchen, a kitchen staffed by men and women of many countries. It is like a mini United Nations but with sharp objects.
The actors prepare and serve invisible food, their movements choreographed, sometimes suggesting mechanisation and dehumanisation, at others suggesting the artistry of their work. Even a lowly cutlet can be lovingly and beautifully prepared. Like clockwork, they all freeze every now and then so that the audience can focus on a bit of dialogue between a couple of characters – a very effective device for a stage that is for the most part crowded with people all doing business. This stop/start technique coupled with the variations of choreographed cookery suggest that the play is more than a naturalistic snapshot of a Day In The Life – and this is where Drama wins out against so-called “reality TV” and always will. You get the feeling that the play is about something other than what is going on at surface level. The second act, with its contrasting pace and rhythms, allows the audience to interpret relationships and events in another way.
There is an uneasy peace between the workers of different nationalities. Skirmishes break out on a daily basis and violence occurs, but this fizzles out again and is often takes the form of workplace banter. Cypriots goosestep around, mocking the Nazis who only a few years previously caused so much kerfuffle. Divisions form and are crossed. A German gives a rose to a Jew.
Director Bijan Sheibani and Movement Coach Aline David keep the show visually and emotionally interesting. It could have been a very static piece, with actors confined to their work stations, performing repetitive actions like some bizarre kind of hand jive. Rather than a peon about the dehumanisation of repetitive, dead end work, this is a celebration of what can be achieved when people work in concert, the sacrifice of individuality for the success of the group. Many of these individuals express their desire to leave or their wish for the place to be destroyed completely so they won’t have to work anywhere, but continue to work there they do. The play touches on workplace as trap, and the unfulfilling nature of most people’s lives. That is not to say this is an evening of drudgery – quite the opposite in fact.
Among this impressive cast of cooks, waitresses, and bottle washers, I particularly liked Marek Oravec as cutlet fryer, Hans, Sam Swann as kitchen porter Dimitri whose greatest dream is to own a shed in which he can build homemade radios, and Rory Keenan as newcomer fish cook, Kevin. I could go on and list another couple of dozen.
Dominating the action is Tom Brooke as interestingly-faced German fish boiler, Peter – he is German, I mean, the nationality of the fish is never established. His mood sets the tone for much of the action. When he is frantic, everyone is frantic. When he is playful, everyone must play. The breakdown of his affair with married waitress Monique leads to his nervous breakdown. He runs amok with a cleaver, chopping at a gas pipe that fuels one of the cookers, before dashing off stage after a troublesome agency waitress, before coming back having inflicted terrible wounds on himself. “Why have you stopped my world?” roars the restaurant owner, a sort of Young Mr Grace figure without the attendant sexy nurses.
Peter, unable to articulate an answer, backs out of the kitchen he has brought to a standstill. Before he can give voice to what might be bubbling up in his throat, there is a blackout, ending the play. We get no excuses from the German with blood on his hands.