Writer: Morris Panych
Director: Nikolai Foster
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
The programme for The Dishwashers carries an article, ‘This Means War!’, in which the notion of class war is discussed. For at its heart, The Dishwashers is indeed about class and how the classes interact – a very British notion, yet it was written by a Canadian and was first produced off Broadway in 2009 before being adapted for British ears in this incarnation.
Matthew Wright’s set – the dishwashing area of a high class restaurant – is static, detailed and monochrome. There’s no room here for machines – each dish, knife and glass is lovingly washed by hand – only the best will do for their high spending clientele. The world inhabited by the dishwashers is in marked contrast to that we imagine exists upstairs – hinted at when we occasionally hear a snatch of music or the buzz of conversation. The feeling of claustrophobia which is engendered in the script, in which there is very little action but reliance on the interplay between the characters and the positions in which they find themselves, is increased by the scene changes – three curtains close and reopen simultaneously with minimal redressing, giving the impression that the stage is shrinking and expanding, exactly as the world of the dishwashers is limited in its scope but expanding to fill their lives with some sort of meaning.
The central character, Dressler, has found his niche. As Ronnie Corbett says in the famous sketch referenced in the programme, Dressler knows his place. A man with a history, he has been washing dishes for decades in this same kitchen. But he is not subservient. He takes enormous pride in his work although his true feelings for the customers surface very occasionally. He is a man with his own home-spun philosophy that keeps him going. But he is his own man, with his own little digs at the system perpetuated by the bosses upstairs. He is assisted by Moss, an older, terminally ill, rather simple man. Moss has little to live for other than his job, which, it transpires, may not be all it seems. Into this relatively comfortable world comes Emmett, or, as Dressler calls him, ‘New Boy’. Emmett is something of an enigma. Clearly intelligent and well spoken, it’s clear that some sort of personal tragedy has beset him causing a fall from grace and his feelings of dissatisfaction with his life as it now is. Once, he ate in this restaurant; now he finds himself existing on the pay, and, humiliatingly, in the rôle, of a dishwasher complete with ill-fitting uniform and wrinkled skin. Which leads us to the other theme to this piece, that of personal journeys – Dressler has largely completed his, but Emmett has much to learn before he becomes self-aware and learns self-esteem. And how much will he compromise his own self-respect to escape the meaningless and repetitive drudgery that is the life of a dishwasher? Will he ever be comfortable in his own skin in the way Dressler is?
The script includes lots of snappy and witty interaction between Dressler (David Essex) and Emmett (Rik Makarem). Their timing is flawless and they draw laughs from the audience effortlessly, despite the wretchedness of their situation, apparently devoid of true meaning. There is a rhythm and musicality to their exchanges that Essex and Makarem fully exploit. However, the script also relies heavily on lengthy homilies as Dressler pontificates on the dignity of work, no matter how menial, and these can get difficult to listen to. In addition, some press night nerves were apparent at this performance as, especially in the second half, Essex stumbled over a few lines, disturbing the flow. The pace is snappy, but this can lead to lines being missed. The strangled nature of Moss’s speech (played with gusto by Andrew Jarvis) means that we also miss some of his words.
So an interesting commentary on how men can make the best of a situation, how they can rise above their immediate surroundings and strive to find some sort of meaning in life, leavened with some genuinely funny moments. But it is hampered by some lengthy speeches that could be tightened up and stumbles along the way that no doubt will get ironed out as the run plays out.
Photo: Manual Harlan | Runs until 15th February, then on tour