Originally staged in 1959, Arnold Wesker’s The Kitchen is a bustling microcosm of 1950s London. Here in the back room of The Tivoli restaurant Cypriots, Italians, Germans, Jamaicans and Cockneys work side by side, sweating over orders and spilling their anger, hopes and histories on the kitchen floor.
Flash forward more than half a century, and the play’s snapshot of a multi-cultural London still resonates. Bijan Sheibani’s new production at the National Theatre is energetic and confident, stressing the overall machine of a busy restaurant rather than its individual cogs.
The production’s excellent choreography supports this vision, and several sequences bring the ballet of a well-run kitchen vividly to life on the circular Olivier stage.
But the skill of the huge cast – nearly 30 characters – is more than equalled by Giles Cadle’s impeccable production design. Gas hobs and stainless steel form a blazing backdrop to the murky glimpses of the characters’ lives.
Thankfully a post-lunch lull in the kitchen allows more of the characters’ stories to appear from behind the ensemble, particularly the German fish chef Peter, played with nervous energy and charm by Tom Brooke.
It is Peter’s romanticism which, when challenged, leaves us all questioning the nature and purpose of aspiration, and whether we are all cogs in a wider machine.
The Kitchen runs at the National Theatre until 8 November, and is being screened live tonight at cinemas across London, the UK and further afield as part of National Theatre Live.