Review by Isabel Zakharova
Food is undoubtedly one of the most evocative triggers of memory and emotion. The taste, smell and texture of certain foods can conjure up powerful images in our minds, transporting us to times and places we may have otherwise forgotten. This idea is the main plot device used in Chef - the latest play to take the stage at Panimo Pandemonium - a festival of new and emerging artists at Sydney’s Kings Cross Theatre.
Written by award-winning British playwright Sabrina Mahfouz (A History of Water in the Middle East; Dry Ice) and directed by Victor Kalka (The Cherry Orchard; Twelfth Night), Chef is the story of a woman’s journey from restaurant head chef to prisoner, preparing meals for her fellow inmates. Semi-biographical in style, the play is split into ‘chapters’, each named after a particular dish which holds significance to Chef’s life. Each food sparks a memory - many of which at first seem innocent, but quickly descend into recollections of violence and loss. While it’s certainly a story full of heartbreak, Mahfouz’s script cleverly interweaves pain and trauma with mischief and humour, creating an unwaveringly honest portrait of life.
The strength in this production lies in actor Alice Birbara’s dynamic performance, which is full of conviction and complexity. Being a one-woman show, Birbara has the challenging task of engaging the audience all on her own, but she does so with great skill and charisma. From her varied facial expressions to shifts in vocal tone, her performance displays excellent versatility, as she transitions seamlessly between moods of joy and despair. Above all, she is able to invoke empathy from the audience. One of Chef’s personality traits is maintaining relentless optimism in the face of extreme hardship, and Birbara’s portrayal of this characteristic is nuanced and sensitive.
While Mahfouz’s writing is rich with poetic rhythms and vivid imagery, some moments of the play came across a bit static. I wondered if some of the lengthy speeches delivered to the audience could have been made more engaging with more movement and less fourth wall-breaking. The set design was relatively bare, meaning there wasn’t much opportunity for spatial interaction. However, Birbara did a great job at building rapport with the audience, making us feel invited into her world. Indeed, at certain moments it felt as if Chef was making in-jokes with the crowd.
One of the elements I would have liked to see pushed further was the sound design. While I do generally believe that less is more, there were points in the play where the subtlety of the sound meant that some of the more intense scenes didn’t quite reach an appropriate level of tension. Despite this, the soundtrack was effective in creating a persistent sense of eeriness and mystery.
While Chef has some slow moments, it ultimately brings together an intelligent script, compelling plot and strong performance. It’s simultaneously a contemporary and timeless piece.
Panimo Pandemonium is taking place at Kings Cross Theatre until March 13.