People have a funny relationship with food. After all, it doesn’t matter how much, or indeed how little, work goes into a meal, once it is eaten, it goes through the digestive system and the next day we need to eat again. I only mention this as it is quite an important part of Sabrina Mahfouz’s award winning play “Chef” currently at the Soho Theatre.
In a sparsely furnished kitchen, the Chef (Jade Anouka) has a lot to say. It quickly transpires that this kitchen is in a prison and Chef is in fact an inmate working at providing the food for her fellow prisoners. Don’t get the impression though that she is an ordinary prisoner cooking a the daily scran. No, our Chef is a professional out in the real world with a, potentially, Michelin starred restaurant of her own and a compelling and at times heart-breaking story to tell. The Chef is a South London born, down to earth, working woman from very humble routes. Her entire life seems to have been dominated by two things – violence and food. The violence was often extreme and it feels as if the love of food and the appreciation of the beauty of combining simple ingredients to produce mouth watering meals is her escape from the it.
It is obvious from the opening moments – as she lovingly describes a simple peach – how food is the real love of her life. Family, partners, friends all pale into insignificance against her relationship with food which she discusses in a sensual manner. Even in her current reduced circumstances, she tries hard to provide her fellow lags with something better than traditional prison fare. But violence is all around her. Out in the ‘real world, she started life with an abusive father – who once tried to strangle her – and seems to be drawn to violent characters as a moth to a flame. As the Chef takes the audience through her story to the point where she is now – and this is not a happy moment in her life – it is impossible not to be drawn into her world and thank the good Lord that you are only a visitor there, like a patron in her restaurant.
“Chef” is a one-woman tour de force. The combination of Sabrina’s very strong writing and Jade Anouka’s powerful delivery – especially when she is joyously discussing food – bring to life the Chef beautifully and create a story as wonderfully put together as a five course gourmet meal. The simple set by Fran Reidy works extremely well, with the plain floor, kitchen table, utensils and white-board where the Chef uses different foods to provide breaks in individual ‘scenes’. Kirsty Patrick Ward keeps the direction simple and the Chef moves around in her limited space – reminding the audience that she is in fact in a prison kitchen – and establishes a rapport with the small audience sharing the space with her. If I have one criticism, it is that the play is quite short. I wanted to know more about the Chef – especially her relationship with her mother which, unlike that of her father, isn’t really explored. But overall, I really enjoyed ‘Chef”, particularly the ending which – and I have read the script since seeing the show – leaves the final questions – is it wrong to do the right things for the wrong reasons? Or even the wrong things for the right reasons? – totally with the audience to fathom out. A conundrum, that two days later I’m still not sure I’ve sufficiently solved in my head.
Review by Terry Eastham
Inspired by an interview Mahfouz conducted with Ollie Dabbous, Chef tells the gripping story of how one woman went from being a haute-cuisine head-chef to a convicted inmate running a prison kitchen. Mahfouz’s distinct award-winning lyrical style and Anouka’s mesmerising performance make this an extraordinary, must-see show.
Leading us through her world of mouth-watering dishes and heart-breaking memories, Chef questions our attitudes to food, prisoners, violence, love and hope.
BY SABRINA MAHFOUZ
Mon 15 June – Sat 4 July, 7pm. Saturday matinees, 2.30pm
Running Time: 60mins
Age Recommendation: 14+
Friday 19th June 2015