Arnold Wesker’s 1959 play “The Kitchen,” set in the kitchen of a hectic London restaurant, helped define an era of English drama: It eulogizes the values of teamwork (read: socialist community) while excoriating the exploitation of workers by capitalism, and features a very angry young man as protagonist. But, while his production contains other, more delicate pleasures, director Bijan Sheibani’s staging of the play’s famous set-piece — the first-act finale enacting the lunch rush — is so showy it skews the play’s message. The work that seems most valued here is not that of the fictional kitchen employees but of the maestro choreographing them.
Wesker’s play is long on atmosphere and brilliant on detail, calling on his youthful work as a restaurant chef. Members of staff arrive in street wear, caught up in the minutiae of their lives. As they don uniforms and start their prep, the individuals become a unit, a image underlined in the pattern of circles in Giles Cadle’s design, from hanging light fixture globes to the round shape of the kitchen itself. Script is also a fascinating evocation of a particular moment in the diversification of Britain, as Irish, Cypriots, and West Indians rub shoulders with the English, and it is notable that Wesker, who is Jewish, made his sympathetic if flawed central character, the fish chef Peter (Tom Brooke), a German.
What the play lacks is a strong plot. Peter’s affair with married waitress Monique (Katie Lyons) provides something of a throughline, but overall what Wesker delivers is theme and message: the stultifying effect of repetitive work on the imagination, as communicated heavy-handedly in Peter’s inability to respond, in the play’s final moment, to the repeated question from restaurant owner Marango (Bruce Myers): “What is there more?”
Sheibani’s brilliantly cast production overall delivers the acute observation of character, relationship, and action the script requires. The impression is of being plummeted into the middle of a thriving, fraught microcosm. Close attention to pace, rhythm, and composition creates a pleasing oscillation of focus, as our attention shifts between snippets of conversation, bitchy spats, copped feels, momentary meltdowns and the big picture.
Total naturalism was never an option here. While the kitchen fixtures actually seem to function, and Dan Jones’ clever sound design provides perfectly-on-cue frying pan sizzles, the food itself must necessarily be mimed. Wesker’s script calls for the first act finale to be “balletic” and contains at least one non-naturalistic freeze of action. But Sheibani, abetted by movement director Aline David, take this too much as liberty to add in repeated choral movement and slow-mo sequences, complete with musical underscoring, and the action peaks in a fully choreographed sequence featuring harnessed waitresses soaring in the air behind the playing area.
Bravura, to be sure. But appropriate, surely not. The self-conscious theatricality belies either a distrust of Wesker’s script, a desire on Sheibani’s part to showcase his own talents, or perhaps both. The production finds its quiet heart at the top of the second act, in the kitchen’s mid-afternoon lull, as Peter and his fellow workers share their dreams and ambitions.
The technical and personnel demands of this play make its staging a once-in-a-generation phenomenon. The last London helmer to use it as a calling card, in 1994, was Stephen Daldry (“An Inspector Calls”, “Billy Elliott,” “The Hours”). National Theater associate director Sheibani, who has already created a stir with his stagings of “Our Class” and “Greenland,” may well have the chops for a similarly storied career, but needs more closely to match his ambitions to the substance of the material he stages in the future.