THEATRE / Please extend my compliments to the chef

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NOT FOR every veteran of the 'breakthrough' movement would the English Stage Company lay on a cast of 28, splash out on a reconstructed auditorium and halve their seating capacity. But Arnold Wesker's The Kitchen was a special event when it first appeared at the Royal Court; and so is its return there after 35 years.

Plenty of Wesker's contemporaries were trying to reinvent what a play could be, but he was the first to theatricalise daily work. He made a basic discovery about stagecraft - namely that boring repetitive toil becomes fascinating when you put it in a performance framework. Utilitarian action turns into aesthetic gesture, work turns to play. The inherently theatrical nature of this process was confirmed by the subsequent film version, which even Wesker acknowledged to be a failure.

There are work routines in his later plays, but the importance of this discovery has not been properly followed up by Wesker, David Storey or anyone else. Stephen Daldry's production, his first in the main house since becoming artistic director, does not feel like a revival. I remember the excitement of the original John Dexter version, which coupled slice-of-life naturalism with a fully exposed lighting rig. Actuality reinforced by artifice. Daldry's version feels like that, too. You are being presented with a new image. That, indeed, is a feeble term for Mark Thompson's construction of a fully equipped, tiled, stainless- steel restaurant kitchen. Everything is there apart from the food. In an environment of seemingly total naturalism, the essential element is left to the imagination. Once again, a frame is being drawn round reality: so that when you look down at the workbenches, ovens and serpentine gangways, dynamic alternatives spring to mind - gymnasium, race track, torture chamber.

The play is laid out symphonically. First movement: a typical morning's work building up to the serving of lunch with all the staff playing full out. Second movement: a lyrical interlude between meals, with the staff revealing something of their personal lives. Third movement: the vivacious tempo returns for the serving of dinner, but routine is disrupted by a personal crisis and the piece explodes into a danse macabre. The meaning is clear: pack human beings on to this kind of treadmill and they will start by attacking each other and end by destroying the machine. So much could be communicated without words. And, as with Daldry's production of Sophie Treadwell's Machinal, currently at the National, you could stop your ears and still experience a powerful narrative development from naturalistic routine to expressionist nightmare.

It is precisely this pantomimic self-sufficiency that gives the text its power. Partly this is a matter of orchestration; voices chime in from all over the set, maintaining fragmentary lines of personal contact in parallel with the impersonal work processes. What is amazing is the extent to which these broken lines fall into coherent patterns of relationship and character. Here is an image of robotic society which simultaneously shows how far its members are from becoming automata.

Figures such as Teddy Kempner, as the defensively Jewish pastrycook, or Ewan Hooper, as the ambitious second chef, briefly commandeer attention and bend the others to their own tempo. It is an ensemble of soloists, with other flashing performances from Tony Rohr, Sandra Voe and Lorraine Ashbourne. But the etiquette of the kitchen is that no one challenges the dominance of the machine.

Wesker's masterstroke is to introduce one character - the German fish-cook, Peter - who throws a spanner in the works. He conducts his love life in public, sets a manic pace to beat the machine, and finally brings it to a shuddering halt. He is also an idealist, clearly related to other world-betterers in Wesker's plays (not to mention Wesker himself), but characterised as a bullying hysteric. Played by Christopher Fulford with astonishing reversals between yearning sensitivity and thick-necked arrogance, he is at once objectively right and personally unbearable. What a play for a man in his twenties]

Giving theatrical morale another boost, an 80-per-cent mid- week audience flocked into the main house of Birmingham Rep for a rare sighting of Tourneur's The Atheist's Tragedy. In this 1611 shocker the impious D'Amville throws himself into a career of incest and murder on behalf of his progeny before learning that there is a power above and braining himself with an executioner's axe. At this point in Anthony Clark's production, Gerard Murphy embarks on a leisurely death speech while rummaging in his skull for a handful of cerebral cortex. It's a typical moment in an evening of slapstick Guignol, with ghosts popping through the roof, charnel-house Keystone cops and a forced bride bemoaning her lot against a wall inscribed 'Give Her One Tonight]'.

With the aid of a concert grand (dashingly played by Dane Preece) and a few gilded properties, Patrick Connellan's stage evokes sumptuous decadence with minimal means. Clark manages to encompass graveyard terrors and bedroom games (uproariously led by Jane Maud) within the same anachronistic style. The squat, sweating figure of Murphy with his wolfish smirk and swivelling eyes leaves something more than fun in the memory.

Wicked, Yaar], a touring National Theatre show by Garry Lyons, brings the Arabian Nights to the inner cities, in the story of Malik, a racially victimised Pakistani teenager, who finds an ally in an underworld djinn. John Turner's attractive production combines elements of Christmas pantomime, rap narrative and bhangra dance. It also draws on Islamic folklore to present the underworld as a reflection of human society; and there are smashing performances from Bhasker as the tartan-suited slave of the amulet and Robin Pirongs as the leading white thug. What the piece lacks is fairytale logic. Detail after detail breaks the rules. And because Malik (Ravi Aujla) occupies the role of hero, he has to turn down the jinnee's offer to fight his battles; as a result, he appears a slow-witted, surly killjoy. Still, if only for its cricket scene, the show is worth the price of a ticket.

A brief hand for John Dunne's The Johns, which assembles Gwen, Augustus and his mistress Dorelia for an acrimonious Christmas party with her rival lover, Henry Lamb. On a thread of plot, the piece projects four incisive personalities whose shared aesthetic insight does not stop them tearing each other to shreds. Tony Pritchard and Jane Evers excel in Catherine Bird's production.

'The Kitchen', Royal Court, 071- 730 1745. 'The Atheist's Tragedy', Birmingham Rep, 021-236 4455. 'Wicked, Yaar]', Rose Theatre, Edge Hill College, Ormskirk, 0695 584480. 'The Johns', King's Head, N1, 071-226 1916.

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