Life comes at you fast or, rather, if you’re already on the wrong side of things, the systems of “justice” and “fairness” will take your life away from you fast. Deep in the heart of those structures, it’s always easier, even preferable, to blame an individual rather than the circumstances.
Chef (Alice Birbara) had a lot working against her from the beginning including an abusive father, public housing, and not a lot to hope for. But she always strove for more and, while that didn’t work out in terms of romance, she did work her way into the position of head chef at a fine dining restaurant. It wasn’t enough to keep her out of prison where she now instructs a small team of other inmates taking it one day, one meal, at a time. Sabrina Mahfouz’s script is ostensibly about one woman’s love of food and cooking but the incorporation of the context of her life and the other inmates, domestic violence, drugs, poverty, abandonment, and cruel mistreatment by the authorities, demonstrates how predictable the cycle of these women’s lives are where incarceration appears to be inevitable.
The script balanced its indictment of injustice as cold and hard against the soft, tender senses of taste, touch, and smell all wrapped up in the joy of food. This dichotomy was represented by director Victor Kalka through the harsh set design of slick tiled floors, stainless steel, and a flickering fluorescent lighting piece that formed the cool bubble around Birbara’s impassioned performance. Similarly, the lighting design by Jasmin Borsovszky moved between warm and cool, washes and more targeted shadowing, to add shape and atmosphere to Chef’s recollections.
Birbara as the central solo performer took some time to warm into her performance and slip on the skin of the tough and intelligent Chef. But once she did, the audience was engrossed in her straightforward approach to life and especially cooking. As she scrawled recipe ideas across a whiteboard, the audience groaned just imagining the dish that Chef described. Birbara displayed a keen ear for tone as she moved between scenes of violence and delight with the required coolness or speechlessness. In the technical moments or in describing the recipes for her future cookbook, Birbara had a particularly deft hand with the sensuous and embodied emotions of Chef which made for a convincing characterisation.
Mahfouz’s superb script was skilfully portrayed in this production with an alluring attention to detail and the subtle undertones at work in this woman’s story.
Chef ran at Kings Cross Theatre from February 17th – 20th as part of Panimo Pandemonium Festival
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