For his first downstairs production as the Royal Court's artistic director, Stephen Daldry has revamped the house almost beyond recognition. You walk in at circle level to discover that the stalls have been ripped out and that the gleaming kitchen of some large restaurant or hotel now rears up from the gutted centre, its aspect rendered oddly arena-like by the large stainless steel oval surround and the curved seating at both ends. The food, as stipulated by the author, is invisible; but everything else, from the sawdust sprinkled on the tiled floors to the steam rising from the ranges, has the impress of realism.
To facilitate this scenic coup, 140 out of the 400 main house seats have been lost and the theatre had to close for a week to allow for the structural alterations. Add to this the fact that there are no fewer than 28 actors in the cast, and you're talking about the most expensive production in the Court's history. Which raises the question: is there enough still cooking in Arnold Wesker's The Kitchen (last produced here in 1961) to justify the trouble?
Well, yes and no, as they say. The piece struck this reviewer as least successful in its generalising gestures towards allegory (life in the overworked kitchen a microcosm of the alienated frustrations of labour under industrial capitalism), and at its most powerful when tracing the strains and stresses of being working-class and inarticulate in this particular period, before the Pill, before the Beatles and rampant youth culture, and still in the long shadow of the War.
The multicultural quasi-community of the kitchen constitutes a world where it remains potentially explosive to be German. In a feat of imaginative sympathy that has not dated, the Jewish Wesker gives the most troubled sensitivity and thwarted yearning to Peter, a 23-year-old German youth, who, as Christopher Fulford's excellent performance reveals, tries to keep his insecurities masked under a lumbering, manic levity, his glugging forced laugh more a tic than a sign of mirth. The sickly convergence of pressures that causes Peter's destructive and self-destructive outbreak of violence at the end is both beautifully plotted by Wesker and brilliantly paced in a production that has a keen feel for group dynamics.
Miming a myriad of culinary tasks, the strong, characterful cast manage to express more than the mere activity while steering well clear of the sort of stylised exaggeration that Complicite or Berkoff would go in for.
This means that the superbly choreographed horror of the lunch-hour rush hits you all the harder, as orders are yelled out with a surreally stepped up frequency and demanding waitresses swarm in contrary circles round the counter like a Busby Berkeley vision of hell and your nerves jangle at what sounds like a perverted percussive fantasia for kitchen implements.
True, it's a mighty hard-pressed establishment that has to churn out 1,500 waitress-served lunches a day, though I don't think, as some critics have, that this is evidence cooked up for the purposes of the allegory. At the end, you may even be left feeling that the proprietor, with his rib-nudging repeated question 'What is there more?', is locked into a life every bit as stunted as that of his staff, for all his material advantages.
What survives in the most charged way, though, are the gestures that move because of the period, like the symbolic, but utterly unsentimental exchange of a red rose between a German boy and a Jewish cook.
'The Kitchen' continues until 2 April at the Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square, London SW1 (Box office: 071-730 1745 / 071-730 2554).
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