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Review: Caroline’s Kitchen at the Everyman Theatre

By Nigel Smith

WHEN Torben Betts’ comedy was first presented as “Monogamy” it received a somewhat mixed reception. In preparing it for a second tour prior to a transfer over the pond, he has made re-writes and has changed its title to “Caroline’s Kitchen” although its original moniker would probably still suit it better, with the possible addition of a question mark at the end.

From the outset it’s apparent that celebrity chef Caroline (Caroline Langrishe) doesn’t have quite the perfect lifestyle that her TV show might present to the viewing public. Her new PA Amanda is proving troublesome and she’s struggling to get rid of the crew from her home-kitchen-cum-studio to grab a few moments of quality time with the hunky handyman Graeme before her husband gets home.

Any hopes of getting more than her household repairs attended to are quickly thwarted when her son Leo turns up sooner than she’d expected, and events begin sliding down a slippery slope of mounting domestic turmoil.

They could slide a little more swiftly, the truth be told, and by the time the first act closes with Caroline crying out ‘Please tell me none of this is really happening’ there is some sense in which I’m inclined to feel the same. Nonetheless, the accompanying thunderclap promises a mounting storm to be played out after the interval.

And there is – albeit one in a teacup. The terrible news from the world of the media remains no more than some mildly embarrassing photographs that Nigella Lawson (who Betts references in his programme note) would have merrily shrugged off. Along with various other distinctly first-world problems we’re built up into an emotional frenzy waiting for son Leo’s great revelation, but when it comes it lands with a resoundingly dull thud of inevitability.

Almost certainly Betts intends us to find his characters hard to like, although to some extent he and director Alastair Whatley succeed far too well in achieving this. The entire cast turn out splendid performances, but what we’re left with is a collection of distinctly two-dimensional social stereotypes with very few redeeming features to make us care about what becomes of them.

Caroline is so self-obsessed that she can’t find time to really worry about either her son’s lovelorn bleating or her husband’s obsession with impending death. Tom England manages to make Leo rather more believably wrapped up in his own world than does his mother. His problems bring very different reactions from each of his parents, with Caroline drifting off in disinterest while his father Mike tramples all over him like the dinosaur that he is.

Actually Aden Gillett’s Mike turns out to be one of the funniest things in the play, although his attitudes are so cringingly crass that it’s hard to know whether to laugh or throw something at him. Gillett swishes about the stage with his tinted glasses and swept-back white mane like a very casual version of the recently deceased Karl Lagerfeld. More interested in his golf handicap than in his family, he mulls over the fragility of his own existence whilst eyeing up any young women who happen to appear.

One such woman is Graeme’s wife, Sally, who is mistaken for a prospective buyer due to view the house. She has actually come to quiz Caroline over some interesting texts she’s seen on her husband’s phone but in the event she gets more (or maybe less?) than she bargained for.

James Sutton gives the most likeable performance in the piece as Graeme. He drifts in and out of the room looking increasingly bemused, hoping for something to resolve itself whilst awaiting the next instruction from either his wife or his employer. Meanwhile he gets eyed up by Caroline’s PA Amanda, much to his confusion. Sutton certainly makes the most of his character’s bewilderment, but like everyone else he’s been dealt some clunky dialogue and, in his case, directed into a rather forced working class northerner style of delivery.

It’s a one-room piece, played out on a stylish and well decorated set from designer James Perkins. Betts wanted to thrust all his characters into an enclosed space and ‘turn up the heat’ as he puts it. As it is, it simmers gently throughout but never quite reaches boiling point.

The play certainly captures the dreadful shallowness of its self-indulgent protagonists and manages to throw poisoned darts in the direction of a lot of modern life’s more unsavoury social mores. It also has plenty of laughs and some real high points. But the over-studied unpleasantness of its leading characters coupled with its over-stuffed plot prove a recipe for a slightly indigestible feast.

Caroline’s Kitchen is at the Everyman until Saturday 26th February and then continues touring the UK until April before transferring to New York.


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