CAROLINE'S KITCHEN AT THE ARTS THEATRE
What are the ingredients of a good play? If you, like me, have been a decades long follower of the social comedies of Alan Ayckbourn you will know that for him food, mealtimes and family carnage go together like haggis, tatties and neeps. The Ayckbourn kitchen in particular is usually a place either of refuge or incipient mayhem (or both). Torben Betts, a playwright heartily endorsed by the bard of Scarborough as a possible successor, sets his two-acter in the domestic kitchen of the eponymous Caroline, a celebrity chef with millions of followers on TV (we are told). Indeed, the opening is a rehearsal of the cook’s upcoming show in which we learn that whatever her cookery skills, she is a thoroughly unconvincing broadcaster with a posh middle class voice and demeanour more suited to the era of Fanny Cradock than the world of Jamie or Nigella. We learn that she likes a tipple (or more) and that she is rehearsing her lines with Amanda - a motor mouthed young woman who is the star’s PA and press officer.
What follows in the next two hours is described as a ‘bittersweet comedy’ set in (well you know where) and all played in real time. We learn that Amanda is having an affair with an unnamed lover, that Caroline’s retired husband Mike has had a fling with another, that her home-from-uni son Leo has been jilted and that the celebrity chef is not only is being unfaithful but the press has got hold of photos that recall the sad days of George Best.
Lots going on, this is a play stuffed full with incident and incessant servings of loud shouting. Betts’ play tries very hard to combine Ayckbournian farce with searing indictment on the sad mores of our time. Thus the recently graduated Leo (a first from Cambridge we are told) expounds (loudly) on the dangers of global warming and the folly of eating meat – a thought that is not met with approval by the TV cook.
All this sounds like a set of strong dramatic ideas. But I am the bearer of bad news. The six characters in the play failed to convince in any shape or form. Why? The poet Coleridge defined ‘the willing suspension of disbelief’ as an attempt by the writer to ‘infuse human interest and semblance into a fantastic tale’ so convincingly that the viewer suspends normal judgement around the narrative - however implausible.
This test is singularly lacking in Betts’ drama: none of the six characters is in any way believable, sympathetic or rounded. They are cyphers –cartoonish characters seemingly from a bygone age. Mike (played with immense vigour by Aden Gillett) is a bore – a golfing former banker with prejudiced views about ‘dusky’ people and tedious fears about his own mortality who barks his words out like a regimental sergeant major with a megaphone. Jasmyn Banks’ over-sexed Amanda is clearly going off the rails (but we are told later that she is simply lonely). Caroline Langrishe works her apron off to try and bring the fictional Caroline to life: we are told she is a deeply religious woman – we know this because she can quote from the bible. Yet there is no sense that she is a passionate cook – she rarely if ever refers to food except for the roast in the oven which inevitably acts as a smoking (literally) gun when required as a comic device in Act Two.
There is also an absurd redemptive moment near the end of the play that almost called for a choir invisible and a soaring hymn from the strings of the Hollywood Bowl. Into this confusing mix comes Graeme – a working class Manchester lad who is more than handy with his tools (nudge nudge). To be fair, Elizabeth Boag brought a rare bit of human honesty to the part of Sally, the increasingly deranged wife of the randy handyman.
This is a world in which people call each other ‘darling’, drink incessantly and hold terribly old fashioned views (recalling Ayckbourn’s early comedies). No one has the decency to listen to others and most of the play is performed at maximum decibel as though the Arts Theatre was La Scala Milan. Neither farce nor social commentary, this production simply lacked the right ingredients to create a credible and digestible theatrical dish.