Back in the 1950s and 1960s, ‘kitchen sink drama’ meant realist plays about English working class characters trapped in impoverished social circumstances railing against their lot. Tom Wells’ invocation of the term in the title of his new play invites us to consider how close or far his story and our times are from when the phrase was coined. It also, in a clever-to-the-point-of-cloying stroke that sums up the tone of the play and the production, refers to an actual domestic appliance whose perennial malfunctioning stands in metaphorically for the internal life of the Yorkshire family that owns it.
This is, in other words, a sweeter, gentler provincial English story: kitchen sink drama for the age of therapy. Gay, sensitive little brother Billy (the remarkable Ryan Sampson) fulfills his dream of getting into London art school, but runs aground when his teachers and classmates realize that his portraits of Dolly Parton are heartfelt, not knowing kitsch. His sister Sophie (Leah Brotherhead), an aspiring jujitsu pro, is being courted by Pete (Andy Rush), a sweet-tempered plumber who can’t finish a sentence, drives a pink van, and whose only living relative is a hip-hop loving, pot-peddling grandma. Milkman dad Martin (Steffan Rhodri) is in denial that the superstores are rendering his self-owned business obsolete, while matriarch Kath (Lisa Palfrey), who works as a school lunchlady and crossing guard, is just trying to hold the family together.
Wells is a skilled young writer: The play’s structure is tight, and quotable lines abound. There are few moments when Wells makes overt mention of a world beyond the family sphere, but hovering outside the play’s frame — and providing it considerable relevance — is the larger context of financial downturn, globalization, and public service cuts, which make the script’s treatment of life on the precarious boundary between lower-middle-class getting-by and the economic abyss feel timely.
This adds gravitas to a fictional world that teeters consistently on the edge of twee. The actors bring a great deal of emotional truth to their roles (with Sampson a standout as the febrile, vulnerable Billy), but there is an anger under the surface of the story that both the script, and Tamara Harvey’s production, shy away from touching. Every character is revealed to be frustrated and unrealized, but their microcosm feels safe and padded, and there’s nothing at stake that a Dolly Parton songs and a cuppa tea can’t make better.
A late revelation explaining why Sophie is relationship-shy comes out of nowhere; we’ve not been given enough of a reason to worry that something’s really wrong with her. Even Kath’s big Christmas Day meltdown, when she attacks the sink with a hammer and harangues the family about its resistance to change, feels more quirky than desperate. Thus play and production may, in the end, feed into old-fashioned stereotypes about the simplicity of small-town folk.
One looks forward to future plays in which this promising writer emerges from the new-writing hothouse, and allows things to get a bit messier.