Last Updated on 21st August 2015
Sabrina Mahfouz’s Chef arrives in London with a fearsome reputation, having scooped the Fringe Fest award at last year’s Edinburgh Festival. It now arrives at the Soho Theatre, forming a key part of its series of monologue-based plays.
It tells the gripping story of how one woman went from being a haute-cuisine head-chef to a convicted inmate running a prison kitchen. Through a strong and powerful monologue, the shocking story of this woman’s life unravels, as she reveals the story of her abusive father, her celebrated culinary career and the sequence of events that led to her ending up in jail.
Thematically, food and cooking provides the strong narrative thread that runs through this production – it gives her redemption from her troubled teenage life, a way to escape from her domestic troubles and proves to be the crutch to keep her stable whilst behind bars. The chef doesn’t just see food as fuel for the body but as a passion, a craft and a way of life.
Jade Anouka is excellent as the play’s protagonist; her infectious energy and fun when enthusing about her culinary creations light up the stage and the audience as well. Carrying a one-person show is not easy and Anouka performs the role well, moving seamlessly between some emotionally charged scenes. However, her accents did start to slip a bit whilst briefly playing secondary characters towards the end.
Mahfouz’s script reflects her background and two different passions; there’s a lyrical quality about the work that seems to transcend both poetry and conversation. Every page of the script is dripping with imagery and vivid storytelling and the handful of jokes are well sculpted and delivered. Whilst this script sounds beautiful on the ear (and Anouka does brilliantly to make every word work), it does somewhat mitigate the real world grittiness, especially as the chef is supposed to be a Londoner from a troubled background. How many inmates in their mid-20s would use the word ‘cuticle’ for example?!
Whilst Chef is generally solid and enjoyable, at a super brief 45 minutes it is not quite given the space it needs to develop into something truly gripping. It takes time to make the audience really care about a character and despite Anouka’s best efforts the play only really gets going just before it ends, as the meandering backstory becomes more focused and the tension ramps up.
Kirsty Ward’s staging is simple and effective – the stage is almost bare apart from a kitchen pass, some cooking implements and a whiteboard. The board is used to post up some tasty looking recipes that serve as the narrative themes for each chapter. Anouka covers the stage well and the intimate staging gave her the opportunity to forge a strong connection with the audience.
If the Chef was a type of food it would be a selection of pre-dinner canapés – small but perfectly formed. However, ultimately you are left wanting a little bit more…