Good Grief?
Dudley Dursley takes the lead: When Did You Last See My Mother?

Arnold Wesker's The Kitchen: A souffle that rises all too briefly

Kitchen_1991345c The Olivier stage at the National Theatre is decked out, rather impressively, like it's ready for an episode of master chef in the 1950's. Actors playing kitchen staff and restaurant waitresses drift in gradually turning on gas rings, putting pans on to boil, heating oil, whisking sauces and preparing cutlery and glasses.

And so the energy slowly builds the closer it gets to service.

If you've never been into a restaurant kitchen this is certainly gives a good sense of the noise, tension and pressure the staff work under.

The interval comes just at the height of service when orders are flooding in and there is the cacophony of cooking and activity to service them. I felt exhausted just watching.

There is much to be admired. Arnold Wesker's play has a cast of more than 30, many of whom are on stage at the same time. The activity and banter is nearly constant and in all places, albeit for the occasional pause where action is frozen to allow brief private exchanges. And then there are times when the activity suddenly becomes co-ordinated like a dance.

It is certainly a mesmerising feat of skill, co-ordination and judgement from all involved especially in making the vast majority of it look so natural.

The problem is that, like a souffle, it is full of a lot of hot air. You get to the interval having been introduced to a great many characters and with hints of plot and storylines - there is a new chef, one of the existing chefs, Peter (Tom Brooke) has been in a fight and there is lots of flirting between kitchen staff and waitresses - but there isn't anything to really get your teeth into. I could have walked away at that point having seen an amazing spectacle without feeling there was anything else I really cared to know about these characters.

Return I did though thinking maybe there was some substance lurking in the depths of the visual feast. Unfortunately the souffle collapses. 

The second half is set after service has finished, as staff drift off for a break before starting over again for the evening and is languid by comparison. It is stuffed with a really bizarre exchange between Peter and some of the other kitchen staff about their dreams culminating in what can only crudely be described as Peter 'losing it'.

It might work if you'd had a chance to get to know them during the first half but there was just too much going on and too many characters to really engage with anyone in particular. Without character development or more than the bear bones of background, an almost philosophical conversation about an individuals dreams and desires, under a pretend arch constructed out of bins and broomsticks, just seems a bit odd.

There is much that is touched on throughout the play - the attitudes towards the difference races of staff for example - that could have been explored but ultimately I left wondering what exactly the point was.

It's getting three stars from me for spectacle.

The Kitchen runs at the Olivier Theatre in rep until November 9. When booking this is one of the few occasions when I'd recommend getting a seat further up the rake. From the second row you miss chunks of the action as the kitchen work stations block the view.



 With such a large cast there are loads of second and third degree connections. So I'm going to keep it simple. Colin Haigh who plays the tramp is one of several members of the cast who were also in The Cherry Orchard in which Claudie Blakley also appeared. Claudie was in Bright Star with Mr W.