National Theatre (Olivier), London SE1
Opened 7 September, 2011
Dan Jones works unobtrusive miracles in this revival of Arnold Wesker’s 1957 work drama. Director Bijan Sheibani and set designer Giles Cadle have created an apparently fully functioning restaurant kitchen: gas jets, ovens, the lot. For, although it contains some stylised sequences, this is not a play that uses abstract “theatre-machine” movements to indicate labour. The cast of 30(!) are intensely a-bustle, preparing and serving omelettes, fried fish, pastries etc for an establishment that caters to up to 2000 customers a day. No foodstuffs appear onstage, but all the activity is real: we see the work, not the product. And where Jones comes in is that his amazingly localised sound design makes the steadily flaming gas jets flare at varying volumes, makes invisible food sizzle in pans, and does as much as the actors to make us see what is not there. He also integrates this naturalistic soundscape with a musical score when the frenzy builds to its periodic climaxes.
Not that Jones is the only wonder-worker in the production. To get a cast that size and a set that detailed on the reduced budget of a Travelex 12 season production testifies to some pretty high cunning on Sheibani’s part, quite apart from his orchestration of so many people in such intricate activity. He opts for a little too much variation of pace for my taste, so that for perhaps the first half of the first act I found the performances too large and slow even for the Olivier’s space. As with the play itself, it is the phases of concentrated industry that inform everything else: the personal relationships between the staff, whether social or romantic (such as between Tom Brooke’s eccentric sous-chef and Katie Lyons’ married waitress), the international diversity of the characters, and what a Marxist would call the alienation of labour.
Some aspects of the play have dated: on the one hand, we find such internationalism far less surprising today; conversely, some matters familiar in 1957 are now obscure, so that scarcely any of us recognised and reacted when a German sous-chef began singing a plangent acoustic-guitar version of what was in fact the Horst Wessel Song. But for the most part, Wesker’s human politics – the “social” root to which, for him, “-ism” is simply a consequent suffix – are unobtrusive yet palpable. They’re the sizzle, in fact.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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