Review – Caroline’s Kitchen, Original Theatre Company, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 11th February 2019

Caroline's KitchenTwo years ago, we saw Original Theatre’s production of Torben Betts’ Invincible, and a jolly fine piece of work it was too. So I was very keen to see this next offering from Mr Betts, produced by the same company. It’s fair to say that both plays have similar themes and subjects. People talking over themselves, pretending to listen but much more interested in what they themselves have to say; people revealing the private emotions that lurk behind a public exterior. There’s even a link between the two plays concerning recent campaigns of war. Mr Betts has a lot to say about the little tragedies that pepper our lives and how they mount up to overwhelm us. He also has a good eye for the surreal, and I can understand why he is spoken of in the same breath as Sir Alan Ayckbourn.

Caroline and CameramanThe play originally saw light of day back in 2016 under the title Monogamy, where it played at the Park Theatre and where it received a variety of extreme reviews. Torben Betts decided to revise the play, presumably enhancing the aspects that went well, and altering or removing those that didn’t. Has he created a sparkling new comedy? Or does it look like something that’s been through the mincer?

CarolineCaroline’s Kitchen is more than just a name of a play; if it was your subject in a game of charades, you’d have to point out that it was also a television programme and a book. Caroline is a TV chef, whose programme is made in her own charming rustic country kitchen in the heart of north London. The first ten minutes of so of the play is an absolute delight, as we see Caroline in full flight, TV camera watching her every move, as she introduces the show, promises us some fabulous recipes and her special guest, the daunting Ingrid from Sweden. Then we realise it’s a rehearsal, and that Caroline has something of a drink problem, which has encouraged some dreadful paparazzi to snap her falling out of a taxi, with only a newt alongside her for comparison.

LeoBut today is a special occasion; son Leo is returning home for a celebratory dinner as he’s just got a First from Cambridge (as Caroline never hesitates to boast about). Caroline’s PA Amanda – a stand-in as her regular PA, Prem, is unavailable – is a 21st century Sloane Ranger with media luvvies stuffed into her phone contacts, and with no idea quite how abrasive and irritating she can be with her pretentious speech patterns. Caroline and Mike’s house is up for sale, and Mrs Minto has booked a viewing that evening, much to Caroline’s annoyance because she doesn’t want the celebration evening spoiled. Handyman Graeme is also on the scene, finishing some little jobs here and there, but wanting a serious word with Caroline. Leo, too, wants a serious word with Caroline. Trouble is, Caroline’s the kind of person who just doesn’t have the time to have a serious word with anyone, apart from God. Add to the mix Caroline’s husband Mike, who manages to be both a boor and a bore, and Graeme’s mentally unstable wife Sally, and you have a recipe for disaster.

MikeThere are dark comedies, and dark comedies. This is a DARK comedy, especially in the first act, where there is a lot of scene-setting and character-establishing. What primarily came across to me was a sense of watching a middle-class tale of suburban angst strung out amongst the sauté potatoes and garnishes of rosemary. With the drama of Leo rebelling by doing charity work, the flashing of cash in order to pay off his debts and buy him a flat, and above all – gasp – smoking! – there was a teeth-jangling tweeness mixed with the darkness, which is a weird combination. Sadly, at this stage, it had also forgotten that it should be funny. At the interval Mrs Chrisparkle and I agreed that, although the performances were good, the play itself was just about limping along.

Leo, Mike and SallyAfter the interval, the second act was considerably funnier, with a few strong laugh-out-loud moments, and the tweeness was replaced by some more demonic undercurrents. I felt uncomfortable at the comic use of the character of Mike’s latent racism and homophobia; of course, it’s absolutely fine to laugh at someone with bigoted viewpoints, but I just felt we were more being asked to laugh with him, which is a very different matter. This wasn’t the only heavy-handed aspect to the play; symbolic rain outside gets heavier and heavier as the evening progresses, even though when people come on stage from the garden, they weirdly don’t appear to be particularly wet. There is, however, a classic Ayckbournian moment; when preparing to toast Leo’s success with champagne, Mike times the popping of the cork a split-second after Sally lets slip that her brother took his own life. Very nicely done.

AmandaAs the relationships between all the characters continue to decline throughout the course of the night, there is some element of farce, but, to be honest, it could have pushed the boundaries of savagery even further than it did. The rather unoriginal ending was a mash-up of Sam Holcroft’s Rules for Living and Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party.

GraemeNevertheless, it is a very good production; the detailed, attractive, fully operational kitchen set strongly impresses when you enter the auditorium, and there are faultless performances from the whole cast; particularly Aden Gillett’s objectionable Mike, and Elizabeth Boag’s tragic Sally. However, I have to confess, I was disappointed with this one. I had high expectations that it only partly met; I was hoping for something funnier, something sharper, something a little more original. Unlike Invincible, there were no characters with whom you feel a connection; they’re all on the spectrum somewhere between ineffectual and unpleasant, so you don’t particularly care about their fate.

Leo and SallyBut you can’t win them all, and I expect I’m out of kilter on this one, because the packed Monday night house really enjoyed it. After its week in Northampton, the tour continues to Liverpool, Cheltenham, Norwich, Eastbourne, Bath, Worthing and Colchester.

Production photos by Sam Taylor

Review – Education, Education, Education, The Wardrobe Ensemble, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 11th October 2017

EducationEveryone remembers the answer Education, Education, Education, but can you remember what the question was? Actually, I don’t think there was a question. It was Tony Blair’s description of his priorities when taking over as Prime Minister in 1997. Ah, those halcyon days. A time for celebration, for romance; indeed, a time for Tamagotchis, remember them? Everyone has their own memory of the 1997 General Election (if you were old enough to stay up late, that is.) We stayed up for Portillo was a phrase bandied around the watercooler (it was too long ago for social media) – as indeed did Mrs Chrisparkle and I. I can’t quite remember if we celebrated Stephen Twigg’s victory in the same way that teachers Louise and Paul did, but I bet there were a few Twigglets born the following February.

EEE would you work with teachers like thisIt is altogether nostalgic, and charming, to remember the hope of those days. There was a spring in our step and a glint in our eye. Cool Britannia was all the rage – were you Blur or Oasis? – Geri sizzled in her Union Jack dress, and Katrina won Eurovision for the UK to round off a fantastic weekend. (We’ve only won Eurovision once under the Tories, four times under Labour… #justsaying). Blair was going to make all the nasty things go away and bring in only nice things. One of those was spending a whole lot more money on education (education, education).

EEE Emily up to no goodSo it’s appropriate for this devised play to be set in a fairly progressive school back in 1997; with a range of teachers (from the idealistic to the realistic) and students (from the compliant to the complainant, in this case Emily Greenslade, played by Emily Greenslade). Yes, that’s not a typo. In fact, all the students at the school have the same names as the cast; if that doesn’t show how much they identify with the story they’re telling, I don’t know what does. But the students (apart from Emily) take a back seat as this play primarily explores the relationships between the teachers.

EEE scary Ms TurnerYou’ve got polar opposites of approach to teaching between the two female teachers, Louise (Head of Discipline) at whose feet everyone cowers and disperses, and Sue (Head of nothing at all) who promotes fun over study in her English lessons. Headmaster Hugh sees his job as motivating his students through treating them as equals and heaping praise wherever possible; whereas teacher Paul is matter of fact and morose, probably doing the bare minimum to get by. Sports teacher Tim is relaxed and amenable, happy to stand in for the French teacher, même though il ne peut pas hardly speak a word of it.

EEE the thoughtful TobiasAnd then we have the new teacher, Tobias, from Germany; thoughtful, introverted, not exactly taciturn but definitely reserved. He might seem unemotional, but he’s genuinely hurt by Emily’s insult; he just has a quiet and balanced way of expressing it. An outsider, Tobias acts as our narrator; introducing the school and its people, commenting on the action from the sidelines, breaking the fourth wall with his interactions with Fergus the tech. If I was being pretentious, I’d describe Tobias as the still point in the turning world, as T. S. Eliot would have it. However, pretentious is the last thing I am, so I’ll keep that thought to myself. Tobias’ narration leaves us in no doubt that Blair’s fantasy world of educational quality through more money was only ever going to be a pipedream. It started well, but look at us today….

EEE look at the roofThe show is directed by Helena Middleton and Jesse Jones, whose superb production of Market Boy for the Royal and Derngate’s Actors Company was the talk of the town (Northampton town) last summer. The structure of the show is madcap, manic and surreal; over the course of 75 minutes so much content gets chucked at the audience that you can hardly pause for breath (unless we’re having a Tobias moment.) It’s beautifully character-driven and characterised, showing how the misfortunes of Emily and Sue clash on one terrible day, with one causing the downfall (literally) of the other. It’s also very funny and very quirky, with tremendous use of popular music as well as other fantasy sound effects. With inventive use of precious little scenery or props they work on our imagination to successfully recreate all parts of the school, indoors and out.

EEE kindly Mr MillsTom England’s hipster Hugh is a delight, with his amazing dad-dancing and championing the unexpected; he’s like a cross between Tom Hardy and David Brent. Jesse Meadows’ Sue blends the strength of idealism with fear of confrontation to produce a well-meaning but ineffectual teacher who’s pushed to risk her own safety for the benefit of others. Emily Greenslade’s Emily is a smart cookie who rails against injustice and fights battles she can’t win to her own detriment. Greg Shewring’s Paul is dour and dismal, in the way that many of my teachers were – did he go to my school, I wonder? Kerry Lovell’s Louise is a terrifying stickler for tradition, demanding absolute obedience, delivering education (education, education) by the book. Ben Vardy’s Tim is your typical nice bloke with one solution for every problem – pub? James Newton’s Tobias is a hilarious study of a jumble of Teutonic attributes but which strangely never comes across as a stereotype but just as an intelligent, logical, practical chap; in the guise of a comedy German.

EEE Mr Pashley on formThis was a big hit at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe and I can imagine exactly how well it would have fitted in there. An intriguing co-production between the Wardrobe Ensemble, Shoreditch Town Hall and the Royal and Derngate, I hope their paths may cross again to produce future exciting work. Its tour continues to Eastleigh and the Bristol Old Vic in October and November and I’d thoroughly recommend it!

Production photos by Richard Lakos