Friday, June 19, 2015

'Chef' at the Soho Theatre, 17th June 2015

Food is a fantastic dramatic metaphor. The best food and the best art both get under your skin, both bear the fingerprints of its creator and both communicate complex emotions without words. Not to mention the sheer visual dynamism of preparation and presentation, or simply describing it in strings of luscious, saliva-inducing adjectives. Sabrina Mahfouz's Chef uses food as a reflection of its subject's soul: no matter how much shit is heaped on an individual they are still capable of wonderful things.

Chef comes pre-garlanded with praise, nabbing the Fringe Fest Award at the 2014 Edinburgh Festival. It's a scanty 50 minute monologue, presented with minimal stagecraft and little theatrical frippery. There's a sense that the dead wood of theatre has been pared away - allowing us untrammelled access to an interesting person: almost theatre as confessional rather than narrative.

Said interesting person is 'Chef' (Jade Anouka). Going in we know that she was a haute-cuisine head chef and is now a convicted inmate running a prison kitchen. Salacious questions immediately pop to mind - what could have precipitated such a fall from grace? How could someone used to expressing themselves through food work in such a restrictive environment? What on earth did this woman even do?

All these answers are revealed in a chronologically jumbled story that gives us insights into family, victimhood, self expression, guilt, denial and joy. It'd be remiss of me to spoil the revelations in Chef, but I can say that by the time we're applauding we've seen a three-dimensional portrait of a genuine human being, one obviously informed by personal experience.

There's a ragged honesty to Mahfouz's writing style. Her broad technique here is to build to an emotional peak (recounting some grim act of abuse) then undercut that with subversive humour. In less capable hands these opposite forces would undermine one another, spoiling the mood. Yet Mafouz deploys comedy and tragedy with precision timing, playing us like a fiddle.

Aside from these clever rhythms, there's some straight-up beautiful descriptive writing on display. My favourite was a description of an uneaten Chinese takeaway: "noodles gloomily looking through foggy containers / at a scene of all too common domestic distress / chunks of sweet and sour chicken solidifying / under the soundwaves of unextraordinary anger". The text is studded with these wonderful turns of phrase, viscerally constructed, full of satisfying alliteration and harmonic phrasing.

This is all beautifully played by Jade Anouka. The confined upstairs room of the Soho Theatre allows a performer to engage with their audience, something that Anouka instinctively grasps. Throughout she makes eye contact with her audience, peppering us with rhetorical questions and the occasional accusatory glance. The effect is that, as we swerve towards darker themes, we're right there with her - almost implicated in her situation. Similarly, shifts in body language, from confident gesticulations to an inverted stillness, go a long way in accentuating the rhythms of the text.

Throughout we keep returning to food; Chef breathlessly describing a perfect peach, coconut tofu curry or hibiscus sorbet. It sounds delicious, the enthusiasm of the performance and the knowledge in the writing conveying an infectious passion. What I took away is that there are some incorruptible passions in life, and food is one of them. The misery inflicted upon the character cannot damp her enthusiasm and pride in her art; though her life is a shambles her soul remains intact.

I've always held that brevity doesn't indicate a lack of depth. In just 50 minutes this manages to pack in more sincerity, truth and humanity than some pieces manage in a couple of hours. I've always enjoyed seeing monologues performed, and this marks one of the best I've seen this year. It's a complex, troubling piece of work that doesn't offer up any easy answers. It's also warm-hearted, funny and approachable. A definite win all round.


Chef is at the Soho Theatre until 4th July. Tickets here.

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