9 February 2018.
During one of the many Dolly Parton songs we are treated to in Chris Lawson’s production of ‘The Kitchen Sink’, she exclaims “if I had wings I would fly away tomorrow“. Wings are in short supply in Withernsea. Tom Wells’ slice of family life is a bittersweet confection – generous and good-humoured but alert to the realities of a run-down East Yorkshire town that’s “a good place to come from but not a good place to end up”.
Episodic in structure, it tracks a year in the life of Kath, a lollipop woman, her milkman husband and two grown-up children. Husband Martin’s milk round is struggling, son Billy is dreaming of getting in to art college in London and daughter Sophie is developing a career in Ju-Jitsu while being pursued by a sensitive plumber. Kath meanwhile is kept busy with work and keeping the family on track. Set within the confines of a kitchen, characters move from back door, to sink, to table to hall. Coats are hung up and the kettle is often on the boil.
Family dynamics are well-drawn. There is much affection but also occasional indifference as a result of familiarity. Billy finishes a passionate speech about his need to express “the whole of himself”, only to realise that no one is listening. Exchanges are open and honest but difficult discussions are often skirted around.
It’s extremely funny, and the cast (and audience) revel in the humour to be found in the writing and situations. As Kath, Sue Devaney delivers an unstoppable rollercoaster of a performance, that at its peaks, with its northern rhythms delivered at top note, is like a hurricane-force Hylda Baker. William Travis as her husband Martin is more downbeat – a calmer foil to her boundless effervescence. Emily Stott as tightly coiled daughter Sophie and Sam Glen as easy-going son Billy deliver less broadly drawn characterisations and their layered performances anchor the family within a recognisably contemporary reality. David Judge as Sophie’s on/off plumber boyfriend Pete brings a different texture to the play – thoughtful and restrained within a household characterised by noise and disruption. Judge provides a beautifully composed physical performance that finds a grace in awkwardness and tells stories within the silences that pepper his unfinished sentences.
Art student Billy’s painting of Dolly Parton hangs on the kitchen wall, and Parton’s songs feature as part of the action as well as between scenes. Tales of love and loss, dreams of a better life and the inescapable pull of your home town – it’s a reminder of the subtle potency that popular culture can possess.
Wells’ play is itself unashamedly mainstream, with a format and style familiar from soap-operas, sit-coms and the kitchen-sink dramas of the fifties and sixties. There is no denying that it plays for laughs a lot of the time (and it gets them). However look a little closer at designer Anna Reid’s kitchen setting and the apricot-coloured walls are looking a bit grubby, the wallpaper is peeling off and the kitchen sink is leaking. This is a family just about getting by. A jar of twenty pence pieces, Kath’s savings, is barely a quarter full.
“Nothing changes and everything changes” says milkman Martin. Having served several generations of a close-knit community, he finds himself suddenly “useless” as the world outside the cosy kitchen is drastically transformed. Martin is struggling to come to terms with the fact that the job he has done for 25 years suddenly has no value – who needs milk delivered when you can buy it at the supermarket? Here’s a place where the familiar roles and routines have suddenly vanished. People have been left jobless after the collapse of Woolies, feel outside their comfort zones in Nando’s – and their only hope is a job in a call centre or at the ubiquitous Tesco.
Other thorns lurk within the laughter. Sophie finds her dreams of a Ju-Jitsu black belt held in check by the micro-aggressions of men, while Billy’s experience of art college in London is bedevilled by class boundaries and geographical snobberies.
On the production’s opening night, there were a couple of timing issues but having to adjust the pacing to deal with longer than anticipated explosions of laughter from the audience is a pleasant problem to have. The humour is fine-tuned to perfection, but you suspect that with such a strong cast, this Kitchen Sink has further depths of tender emotion to plumb. It would be a shame not to adjust the balance slightly, to dial down some of the comedy, to allow for that.
Tom Wells’ ‘The Kitchen Sink’ wears its social conscience lightly but the cast makes sure we really care about the plight of people who are just getting by. Delivered with genuine commitment and infectious enthusiasm, Chris Lawson’s uproarious production is a total crowd-pleaser.
Images by Joel Chester Fildes