Thirty-two actors needed to be shown the ropes in a kitchen. A monster kitchen, no less, feeding 2,000 customers a day. Would I do it?
This invitation, from director Bijan Sheibani, to help with his National Theatre production of Arnold Wesker’s The Kitchen, caught me offguard. In between the exhaustion, despair and occasional euphoria of restaurant life, I am used to its lighter side – meeting producers of fine vittles, say, or visiting a farm. But I had not been involved with the theatre since a school production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience, and that was strictly chorus line.
In The Kitchen, Wesker, who celebrates his 80th birthday next year, conjures up a 1950s, Lyons tea shop sort of a place in London’s West End, where undistinguished food for thousands of customers is churned out every day by a miserable brigade. Sheibani wanted to recreate the very kitchen that the restaurant business has taken such great steps to escape in the past few decades – a grimy, bleak place, where the staff live a troglodyte existence under a pall of gloom, serving food best left in the past.
Any dreams of a glorious Ziegfeld Kitchen Folly were dashed. There would be no chefs splendidly crossing the stage with carcasses of beef and pork. No vast chorus of grinning, all-singing, all-dancing waiters going into a big number. Instead, what was required was a dour kitchen manned by grumpy, cocky chefs; all smoking, all drinking and, of course, infinitely irascible. How could I resist?
I was to lead the company through a rigorous week of workshops in the National Theatre Studio. They would learn to chop, fry, whisk, roll pastry and master myriad other techniques as true to kitchen life as can be, with yours truly cracking the whip. I confess the prospect was daunting, trying to pass on techniques acquired by chefs over years of apprenticeship and practice. “How?”, “Like this?”, “Show me again, don’t quite get this” and other questions filled the air as tables were assembled in the middle of the huge studio.
Sacks of onions were demolished and made the whole theatre reek. Omelettes were turned out by the dozen. The food was a far cry from haute cuisine – the dictates of the play, set in the dour 1950s, make that pretty clear. But even though real food would not be prepared on stage, it was important to get the movements right. The company charged through the posturing of chefs, their bravado, their bowed exhaustion, their extraordinary speed, dazzling knife skills and the unending demands of kitchen life.
Fuelling authenticity also meant introducing a measure of pandemonium. “Far too polite!” was a frequent observation. Chefs bang and throw, they are cocksure and feisty. We also got to grips with how chefs begin their days, read their menu and plan their work, gathering together a batterie de cuisine, the equipment necessary to perform their great labour; to determine their mise en place, the endless preparation of the mountain of foods required for the day.
The actors devoured this education with glee, ducking out for an evening performance of Uncle Vanya or The Cherry Orchard with their fingers covered in blue plasters, reeking of onions.
In the weeks between the workshops and the rehearsals, the cast came in ones and twos to the Blueprint Café to see how our kitchen works. The lad making omelettes almost burned the skin off his hands. The actors being porters had to muck out. Even now, I am unsure who was the more bewildered and amused, the actors or the cooks.
Rehearsals proper took place in the National Theatre itself. My job now? To finesse the movements required to make the kitchen work at full tilt – able, deft and sure. One bluff chap had a persistent habit of raising his pinkies in a most dainty manner while sharpening his knife on a steel. After many attempts to modify this habit, came the utterance, “I am trying, dear!” “That’s Chef to you,” I replied. Sheibani smiled throughout.
Restaurants and theatres have much in common: long hours, enormous amounts of hard work and training, curtain up, performance, service, everything done to please paying customers.
One actor beamed at me during rehearsals that, “Performing at the National was like playing at Wembley.” “Ah,” I said. “You are becoming a true chef. Lots of them talk about football, too. Now, about holding that rolling pin correctly … ”
‘The Kitchen’ opens at the National Theatre’s Olivier Theatre on September 7, previews from August 31. Box office: 020 7452 3000; www.national theatre.org.uk. Half the tickets will be Travelex £12
For a slideshow of more of Emily Hope’s images go to www.ft.com/thekitchen
‘The Kitchen’ through the ages
In 1956, the young Arnold Wesker worked for a spell in a huge kitchen in the Le Rallye restaurant in Paris, writes Sarah Hemming. He described the searing heat, the intense pressure and the relentlessness of the work vividly in his diaries at the time, concluding, “It is insanity … for any man to work like that.”
However, the gruelling experience ignited an idea for a play that illustrated “the dehumanising effects of the work process”. When The Kitchen had its first showing at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1959, it was extraordinarily ambitious. It called for a large cast to recreate the pressure-cooker atmosphere on stage, rising to a crescendo at the end of the first act when, in a whirlwind of frenzied activity, lunch was served. The critic Kenneth Tynan described it as “the fullest theatrical expression I have seen of the laws of supply and demand”.
The play consolidated Wesker’s reputation as one of the rising group of politically engaged young writers who were vigorously dramatising working-class experience.
In 1994, Stephen Daldry staged a major revival, which revealed The Kitchen not only as original drama, but also as a fascinating depiction of the tensions of the 1950s. And Wesker’s insights seem to be in fashion: the current National Theatre revival follows a hugely successful staging of his Chicken Soup with Barley at the Royal Court.
Sarah Hemming is the FT’s theatre critic