Set in London in 1957, in the bustling kitchen of The Tivoli, Arnold Wesker’s two-acter – first staged at the Royal Court in 1959 – is based on his experience of working in restaurant kitchens in Paris and London. The action takes place over the course of one day in a kitchen that caters for 2000 customers and is presided over by the quietly tyrannical, profit-obsessed Mr Marango (Bruce Myers).
Giles Cadle’s circular set gleams with steel and glass and cast iron, the walls lined with shelves on which teeter towers of crockery and glittering glasses, with industrial stoves and gas hobs that actually ignite – which had us in a mild state of anxiety for the duration of the first act, thinking one ring hadn’t been lit properly and we were going to be gradually gassed and/or eventually exploded. Luckily, that didn’t happen. (Paranoid? Who?) Sound design from Dan Jones, with hisses and sizzles in all the right places, and great visuals of flaming skillets and steaming coffee pots make this fully mimed kitchen experience completely authentic.
Tom Brooke’s moody, impulsive, yet charming Peter, his tempestuous affair with one of the married waitresses and his violent feud with a fellow cook are at the centre of the drama. But it’s an ensemble piece, and the cast of 30 is ably and imaginatively directed by Bijan Sheibani, who recreates the frenetic atmosphere of a busy kitchen, marching the play along swiftly, its tempo almost musical – the various chopping, beating, stirring, pouring and plating up made rhythmic, moving like a dance piece.
Wesker was trying to get across how dehumanising it is to work in such a high pressure environment, and Sheibani’s choreography of the piece is faithful to that; the workers’ high speed synchronisation emphasises that, in this world, as individuals, they don't matter – they become a machine, a factory line. “This is no place for a human being,” the new cook complains. “You can get used to anything if you have to,” the common refrain. Peter’s spectacular breakdown in the second half exemplifies how dangerous this attitude can be.