DramaReviewSouth East

Caroline’s Kitchen – Mercury Theatre, Colchester

Writer: Torben Betts

Director: Alastair Whately

Reviewer: Michael Gray

Caroline Mortimer has it all. A lovely house in North London, a clever son at Cambridge, a successful, prosperous spouse. And her career: she’s the darling of Middle England, her books sell like hot cakes, and her cooking is the envy of the millions who tune in each week to Caroline’s Kitchen.

This aspirational space is both the heart of Caroline’s home and the setting for the tv series. James Perkins’ compact touring set captures it to perfection, from the designer fridge to the knife block to the smallest pot of herbs. In the corner by the sink, a crucifix and a stained glass window, a none-too-subtle reminder of her faith.

Not much actual cooking gets done. The first act starts with a rehearsal for the next day’s show, featuring a Michelin-starred Swedish chef, some tripe and an ill-omened gift of a knife.

Sunshine streams in from the garden, but the fickle weather soon turns, distant thunder heralds an apocalyptic flood, as bombshell follows bombshell and, as Alan Bennett has it, “the air is black with the wings of chickens coming home to roost”.

Too many examples would spoil the enjoyment of those who’ve yet to see behind the scenes in Caroline’s Kitchen. (It’s already played in town; a New York run is lined up next.) But, true to the genre, a dirty weekend is planned, someone arrives home early, and there’s a case of seriously mistaken identity, rather under-exploited here. The first cracks in the facade of perfection are triggered by The Mail on Sunday, threatening to publish some unflattering photos of Caroline tumbling drunkenly out of a taxi. Alastair Whatley’s breathlessly fast-paced production is punctuated with awkward pauses and embarrassment; the relationships are frequently uneasy, and we’re often unsure whether we should be laughing or not.

The characters in this state-of-the-nation comedy are almost all very recognisable. Almost all have a tragic back-story. Even Caroline, superbly played by Caroline Langrishe. She could be any troubled middle-class woman; the sainted domestic goddess thing is as good as irrelevant, the icing on the cake. Her racist, homophobic husband is done with relish by Aden Gillett, longing to be spared the horrors of old age, envying the fate of the chap who died on the golf course, face in the grass, arse in the air.

Tom England gives a wonderfully touching performance as Leo, their insecure son, starved of love, showered with money. Caroline’s temporary PA, the “snippy” Amanda is less convincing as a character – we meet her first standing in for the Swedish chef. Jasmyn Banks plays her, possibly drug-fuelled, foibles for all they’re worth, and, despite her horrendous life, she gets many of the laughs. The other paid help is James Sutton’s carpenter, a nuanced study in inarticulate despair, Elizabeth Boag is his unbalanced wife Sally.

Some of the sign-posts land with too much of a thud, all of the characters are complex and devastatingly scarred. What begins as a domestic comedy ends as something much more akin to Jacobean tragedy. But the events of a summer evening are skilfully crafted towards the cataclysmic climax, and the play has a lot to say about relationships, lifestyle, ageing, class and religion, all in less than two hours in the gleaming, glamorous confines of Caroline’s Kitchen.

Runs until 13 April 2019 | Image: Sam Taylor

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