By Simon Fearn
As far as naturalistic theatre goes, it’s hard to top Aidan’s College Theatre’s production of Tom Wells’s The Kitchen Sink. I didn’t expect a play about a glum out-of-work patriarch and dodgy plumbing to leave me laughing uncontrollably and slightly in love with most of the characters, but this is indeed what happened. Both the production values and the characterisation showed an attention to detail not often found in student theatre. In short, it was impossible not to enjoy.
The Kitchen Sink is director Dom Williams’s final Durham show, and it was often clear that an experienced hand was at work. The pacing was always spot on, and the high energy group dynamic never let up. The slightly silly sense of humour in Wells’s script was also brought out of the somewhat gloomy premise, ranging from the perfect first line of ‘what do you think about the nipples, Mum?’ to several moments of physical comedy which had the audience in hysterics.
No less virtuosic was the seemingly inexhaustible ability of producers Laura Chapman and Ellie Bowness to source an endless array of props. It’s surprising how little details in the set and costumes can speak volumes about a character. The two Milton Jones posters in particular were a nice touch; it was easy to picture the family enjoying the comedian’s old fashioned puns and zany humour. Meanwhile, one of the great underrated comedic moments of the production was the flamboyant velvet jacket Billy wore to a funeral. It was clear that the team had substantially fleshed out Wells’s characterisation. Williams writes in the programme that clear backstories were devised for each character, and this appears to have had a significant positive impact on the production.
Another inspired choice was the use of the kitchen of Café Cenno in the Indoor Market. The market’s quaint, slightly ramshackle feel perfectly suited Wells’s script and created a homely atmosphere. The programme proclaims the market as a bastion of ‘old fashioned values’, some of which can be detected in Wells’s focus on family ties and struggling working class professions. From a purely practical point of view, the frequent entrances and exits down the aisle and at the back of the set excellently conveyed the bustle of family life, and there was even a ‘welcome home’ doormat as the audience walked in!
All of this acted as a backdrop for some truly excellent performances. Jim Harris definitely proved a worthwhile investment as vocal coach, and with the slightest of wobbles excepted, the dulcet tones of Withernsea were executed perfectly. My favourite performance was probably Olivia Race’s cheeky, but heartfelt portrayal of irrepressible matriarch Kath, but the production offered an embarrassment of riches. Dominic McGovern was equally loveable as Kath’s camp and slightly useless son Billy, and simply through a drooping bottom lip, McGovern managed to portray an uncommon sense of his character. Equally accomplished was Emilie Aspeling’s portrayal of Billy’s older sister Sophie. Her playful and mocking eyes captured the audience’s heart as well as hapless plumber Pete’s (Rob Collins), and her presentation of Sophie’s occasionally irrational mood swings and past trauma could only be admired.
The production was alive with humour and energy, which meant that Sandy Thin’s take on unemployed father Martin was a slight disappointment in comparison. He was excellent at portraying Martin’s somewhat zombified state with a dead look in his eyes, but through conveying Martin’s exhaustion, he sometimes seemed to come across as half-hearted compared to the rest of the cast. His fluctuations between anger and tenderness, and his dynamic with the rest of the family, were often unconvincing, but I must admit that he nailed his final monologue.
The audience reactions I caught in the interval were almost uniformly positive. One theatre goer compared the play to an episode of Coronation Street, but aside from the odd soapy tendency, the resemblance soon ends due to the surprising emotional depths explored in the second half and the consistently naturalistic acting, devoid of melodrama throughout. I much preferred another audience member’s summary: ‘wonderful, wonderful, wonderful!’ It takes a special performance to be wonderful thrice over, but the team behind The Kitchen Sink can be confident in having pulled it off.
Until Sat 20 June at Durham Indoor Market.
Photo: Isabelle Culkin