Chef - Kings Cross Theatre (NSW)
Presented by Virginia Plain in association with KXT bAKEHOUSE. Written by Sabrina Mahfouz. Directed by Victor Kalka.
Reviewed by Justin Clarke
25 January - 04 February 2023 Kings Cross Theatre, Potts Point Tickets: https://events.humanitix.com/chef-2023#
- Chef is a masterclass in poetic monologues that offers much more than a tantalising menu -
Food holds the power to unlock memories: shared experiences gathered around a table, family meals slaved over for hours in a kitchen, stumbled upon restaurants on a whirlwind tour, the decadence of a singular ripe piece of fruit. Acclaimed playwright and poet, Sabrina Mahfouz, recognises this and uses it methodically, like a painter with a brush and palette, to craft her tour-de-force monologue performance in Chef.
Told through segmented sections of a four course meal, Chef (Alice Birbara) journeys through key moments of her life that have led her to running a prison kitchen as an inmate. The trauma from an abusive father, a near escape from a deadly fragile relationship, and the death of a fellow inmate are all fractured through a decadently tantalising menu written by Chef on a whiteboard.
Wearing chef whites and tracksuit pants, Birbara gives a performance that is instantly memorable, whilst being emotionally draining, fragile and at times, bitterly funny. Under the direction of Victor Kalka, Birbara is armed with nothing but her body, a whiteboard and pen, and a serving trolley upon which sits a ripe peach and cutting knife. The absence of a chair makes Chef a production that requires a cohesive team to map out the sequencing of Mahfouz’s script, and gives Birbara that extra challenge through the removal of any resting place.
Images by Clare Hawley
Lighting design by Jasmin Borsovszky and sound design by Ryan Devlin, never overtake the performance, but offer small enhancements here and there. Borsovsky’s use of blue hues contrasts to the fluorescent whites and dark greys, creating a separation between Chef’s kitchen, her past and the prison. Devlin enhances tense moments with subtle buzzing in the background and small soundscapes that aid in sharpening Chef’s recollections. Whilst neither fully reach a sharp and impactful statement, they all work to support Birbara’s performance.
Kalka and Birbara work closely to bring to the forefront the poetic nature of the script, which ebbs and flows like a piece of spoken word poetry.
The script itself has an abundance of poetry about it, it’s both political, personal and a character exploration of one's art as a mode of healing. The metaphorical use of food as passion is clear, and yet is not overshadowed by Mahfouz’s characterisation of creativity as a means of survival. Throughout the recounting of Chef’s life, each segment begins with a light-toned anecdote of a meal - Curried coconut tofu, yellowtail sashimi, red wine risotto with mushrooms and a delicate red berry and hibiscus flower sorbet. It’s methodical, yet somewhat repetitive, as Chef slowly descends deeper into her psyche that connects with each meal.
As the 2022 film, The Menu, dealt with the upper echelons' need for status and the overarching question of how we digest art, Mahfouz too asks similar questions. Chef after all, is a piece of art on stage. Kalka and Birbara work closely to bring to the forefront the poetic nature of the script, which ebbs and flows like a piece of spoken word poetry, brought to life by Chef’s rough-natured accent and dialect. You quite often find yourself being lost in the lyrical nature of the script that you have to bring yourself back to the narrative taking place.
The wordy nature and denseness of Chef may seem too decadent for some audience members, and it’s true at times that the direction becomes stale and confined within the parameters of the stage and script. However, Birbara’s physicality at the most intense moments of emotion tends to break through these inconsistencies. Seeing her overwhelmed at the audience’s reaction in the bows was a testament to her performance.
Chef must be added to your theatrical menu of 2023. Setting the bar high for independent theatre this year, the tour-de-force performance of Birbara, coupled with the intensely poetic nature of Mahfouz’s script offer an intensely rich and satiating addition to KXT’s long goodbye.
CAST AND CREATIVES presented by Virginia Plain in association with KXT bAKEHOUSE written by Sabrina Mahfouz performed by Alice Birbara director/designer Victor Kalka lighting designer Jasmin Borsovszky sound designer Ryan Devlin stage manager and rehearsal photographer Christopher Starnawski photographer Clare Hawley
Special Thanks New Theatre Hailey McQueen & Yannick Lawry / Clock and Spiel Productions Emily Buxton