CHEF, presented by Virginia Plain, KXT - Kings Cross Theatre, 25 January-4 February 2023. Photography by Clare Hawley
Award-winning British playwright, poet, and much more besides Sabrina Mahfouz, wrote Chef in 2014. It was staged at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, in 2015 it was produced at the Soho Theatre in London. It opened for KXT at the beginning of 2022 in the Panimo Pandemonium season – to acclaim. Happily, it’s now back for a short run and should not be missed.
KXT’s traverse stage is set up as a bleak, institutional kitchen where floor and walls are white, grubby, grout-edged tiles. There is a whiteboard on wheels and a mobile stainless steel storage thingy. On its gleaming top is a peach on a saucer. All is illuminated by the unflattering lighting necessary for chopping veg and deterring cockroaches (lighting designer Jasmin Borsovszky). It could be a commercial kitchen anywhere, although there is something off about it that suggests we’re not at Lucky Kwong or Berowra Waters Inn.
Enter Chef (Alice Birbara) and the beginning of a short, sharp, sweet, sour, and always enthralling 50 minutes. First, she reveals the world of food by halving that peach and introducing us to its perfection of flavour, perfume and possibility, then, marker pen in hand, she writes up the first item on her menu: curried coconut tofu. As she describes the coconut and the gleaning of its flesh from the shell, it’s impossible not to be swept up in the sensuous pleasure of shavings of creamy but firm coconut flesh and the very real world of food porn. But don’t get comfortable.
Chef is a nervy, prowling creature whose expressive face and prehensile limbs hint at deeper, darker layers – umami of the soul perhaps. As quickly becomes apparent, Chef is no longer reigning over her fine dining restaurant, but is in charge of a prison kitchen where the ingredients and dishes she introduces to us are fantasy or memory.
Each menu item – written up, riffed upon, and then erased from the board to be replaced by the next – represents chapters of her life and experience. There is yellowtail sashimi, and red wine risotto with mushroom sauce. Yet each luscious dish is placed in contrast to stark sadness, or violence, or both. And a minimal, abstract sound design (Ryan Devlin) is like a chiffon skim of icing on a nubbly cake. Chef’s life has not been happy or uncomplicated although it has not destroyed a streak of sardonic humour that flashes now and then and causes surprised, quiet laughter from the audience. Mahfouz’s script is a poetic yet uncompromisingly tough thing. It abounds in startling word pictures and phrases and she has fashioned a character in Chef that is fascinating and profound – and Birbara makes everything of her.
Birbara trained at Bristol Old Vic in the UK, because apparently she couldn’t get accepted by local acting schools. Ouch, there’s one who got away. Watching her gently peel back the petals of Chef’s soul to reveal its dark, tragic heart jogs muscle memory of “the first time…” experience of Blanchett or Snook or Debicki. Mark the name Alice Birbara before she’s snapped up and disappears overseas again.
Victor Kalka directs Chef and does a fine job with the intense, dense text, all funneled through one actor and distributed seamlessly and naturally to the audience on either side of the traverse. The actor and director make this tricky task seem easy – and the mechanics are invisible – such are their skills and rapport. Similarly, Birbara remains grounded and compelling through flights of fancy, murder, abuse, and mayhem, all in 50 minutes.
By the time dessert is scribbled on the board – red berries with jasmine and hibiscus flower sorbet – we’ve been taken on a journey of extremes of human experience and behaviour. Most intriguing, as the menu progresses from savoury to sweet, each segment of Chef’s story becomes darker and more desolate. Yet the unquenchable spirit flashing in the eyes and energy makes it thrilling rather than wretched. Recommended without reservation.