The hell behind the haute cuisine. Watch Caroline’s Kitchen at the Devonshire Park Theatre this week, and you will forever see all those TV chefs in a different light.
Mary Berry she isn’t; Caroline would never achieve National Treasure status. Unlike our assumptions about the nation’s culinary grandmother, Caroline’s off-screen life is a ragout of distress, conflict and dysfunction. And it’s about to boil over...
The play opens on a huge, impressive set depicting a gleaming and stylish kitchen, from which the eponymous Caroline presents her TV cookery shows. It’s only a rehearsal day, in a confusion of technicians, cables and microphone booms that set the tone and the pace.
Torben Betts’ dialogue is masterful, frequently rattled off at machine-gun pace with characters sometimes talking across each other rather than to each other. Stay with the pace, for this is a deliberate technique and it says much about the fractured lives of this family.
Caroline is the sort of chef who cooks with wine, and occasionally puts a little of it into the recipe. In the title role, Caroline Langrishe beautifully embodies the fragility and insecurity behind the confident public persona. Stranded between a hollow marriage and a racy affair with the local carpenter, her life is spinning, and she cannot steer it back on course.
Boorish, outrageously sexist husband Mike – a marvellous performance from Aden Gillett, full of hilarious one-liners – is clueless and shockingly thick-skinned in his family relationships. Golden son Leo – engaging playing by Tom England with a slightly cliched role – is embracing a life that dashes all his parents’ plans: vegan, off to work with Syrian refugees, and goodness me, he has a boyfriend and not a nice girlfriend.
Strong support comes from James Sutton as Graeme, the dumb but dishy carpenter without the Checkatrade rating; from Elizabeth Boag as his offended and incandescent wife; and from the wonderful Jasmyn Banks as the strident young PA who dictates Caroline’s life.
It might not have worked, this play; and it may not be quite to everyone’s taste, although Tuesday night’s opening audience revelled in the preposterous characters and the occasionally raw comedy. But like all fine drama, it takes a surgical knife to human nature.
Alastair Whatley, for the Original Theatre Company, commissioned the work from Torben Betts, and the partnership has been lengthy and fruitful – including a change of title (from Monogamy) and a significant re-write ahead of this tour. Alastair once again shows himself an astute director who coaxes fine performances without dictating.
Torben’s star, meanwhile, continues to rise. Through a long association with the Stephen Joseph Theatre at Scarborough, he has been an Alan Ayckbourn protege, and this show does have echoes of some of the great man’s darker comedies. But Caroline’s Kitchen is neither sub-Ayckbourn nor sub-anything else. It is a bold piece of theatre, which vividly entertains. By Kevin Anderson.