Whenever I go to a live performance there's one thing I hope for above all the others. That at some point it will cast that remarkable spell that holds me, that suddenly disappears the audience, the building so there's just me and the situation of these characters, now. This is a slight exaggeration but the essence of it is the magic of truly great live performance suddenly to hold you bound so that you have to watch. After the first act of this revival I really did not expect it to happen, but Act Two is an absolute stunner.
The problem with the first act is not with the play itself but with the staging. This is an ensemble piece about the lives of the staff of a busy restaurant and in the first act we are introduced to the whole set of them. Given that there are thirty of them we have only little glimpses. They are intentionally subsumed in the work structure of the kitchen of the title. This has two consequences. First, one hasn't time to get to know any of them sufficiently to be thoroughly engaged, and secondly, the success depends on the brief vignettes being effectively counterpointed by the process of the dinner rush. Unfortunately, director Bijan Sheibani and movement director Aline David's vision of this rush is flawed, albeit to some degree for understandable reasons. The most obvious issue is that there is no food anywhere in this kitchen – it is all mime and imagination. I can see that it would be very expensive and with raw meats and fish very tricky to actually have real food, but the lack of it is a problem. It means the kitchen stays too clean and for me the bustle of food preparation just lacks conviction. This is compounded by the choreography which I found too stylised – the rush should build to absolute frenzy by the end of the act and it just isn't extreme enough – the movement is ultimately too beautiful, too cleanly done. Don't get me wrong, the movement is excellent in itself and this large ensemble cast execute it to perfection but it doesn't fit the mood and needs of the play.
But after the interval this ceases to matter. Act Two takes us beneath the surface of a fraction of these characters, and by God Wesker can write a line to bind one. The act begins with a sequence where Peter, the German boiled fish chef who gradually emerges now as the central figure, urges his fellows to tell a dream. A series of superb little snatches of humanity emerge, at the centre a tolerance and acceptance that lies beneath the quarrels of this crew of disparate nationalities. Simple gestures gain remarkable weight and meaning – a brief squeeze of a shoulder, the handing of a rose from one to another. This revival retains the play's 1959 setting, but the performances in Act Two showed that the issues of that time have actually lost none of their poignancy and relevance. We might like to think that the world of work is not crushing our humanity, we might like to imagine that we are a more tolerant society but I'm not convinced that either of these things is especially true. The ways these issues manifest themselves may have changed, but their effects upon the individual are not actually so different.
Throughout the play depends on excellence from every member of this thirty strong ensemble and it is a marvellous collective performance. Not a single player sounds a false note and a whole host of commendations are deserved for those who effectively have only minor but crucial roles – for example Bruce Myers as the owner Marango and Marek Oravec as fry chef Hans. I do want to give particular mentions though to the performances of Tom Brooke as Peter and Samual Roukin as Paul who do so much to give Act Two its emotional punch.
Possibly I was assisted in being stunned by the second act because I have never (unlike many critics) seen the play before. Be that as it may this play for me asks questions of continuing relevance, is performed by a first rank ensemble and powerfully moving. Do not miss it.