The Kitchen Sink is billed as a comedy, and is certainly laugh-out-loud funny. But while the play may open with a nipples joke, it leads us to a reflection on the experience of failure which is profound and poignant. And along the way we see the ramifications of hope, pride, injustice, disappointment, thwarted dreams, grief, class, sexism and love – all played out beneath the witty dialogue. So while it may have the feeling of a sitcom, it actually packs much more of a punch than you might expect from the first 15-20 minutes.
The family we encounter in The Kitchen Sink is the archetype of Theresa May’s JAMs. Dad/Martin (William Travis) has been a milkman all his life, travelling the same route day after day after day, proudly supplying generations of families of this insular northern community. Now, however, his milkfloat is spluttering its way towards its mechanical demise and his disloyal customers are turning to Tesco for their dairy supplies. Martin is a man desperately clinging on to the last threads of self-respect; he can sense the abyss that lies ahead and only manages to get through each day by adopting the simple expedient of denial (and a futile diversification into yoghurt.) In emotional terms, Martin is ‘old school’; he struggles to express his feelings or respond to the emotional needs of both his wife and his children – especially his gay son, Billy (Sam Glen).
Despite his dad’s evident difficulties with it, Billy seems comfortable with his sexuality and, in further contrast with Martin, clearly embraces emotional self-expression and fulfilment. Idolising Dolly Parton (because she “sings with the whole of herself”), he pours his soul into recreating her in an oil painting (complete with erect nipples and blue sequins) which he submits in application to a London art college. He is worried, however, how he will fit in to the ripped-jeans, southern arty scene – a concern exacerbated when the art college interprets his all-too-sincere Dolly Parton homage as an ‘interrogation of kitsch’. Meanwhile, Billy’s sister, Sophie (Emily Stott) – an emotionally brittle and awkward 20-something – is teaching Ju-Jitsu to children, working towards her black belt, and developing a relationship with an equally awkward aspiring plumber, Pete (sensitively played by David Judge).
At the heart of this family is Mum/Kath (Sue Devaney). While each of the other characters is myopically immersed in his/her own struggles, Kath’s infinite love and empathy enable her to see into all of their worlds, to share both their suffering and their triumphs and generally to keep the ship afloat, emotionally and practically – and all this despite holding down two jobs (as school dinner lady and lollipop person). In addition to managing all the challenges and turmoil, she is, in her own small way (typically through ill-judged culinary offerings), trying to move a resistant family towards change.
What is especially engaging about the way writer Tom Wells has written this character is that there is no sense of ‘worthiness’ to her. She just feels authentically like a mother who loves her family and does whatever she does from that place – completely without thought or strategy. She is also full of mischief and subversion; in a delightful scene, she not only accepts an offer to smoke a joint, but reassures the youngsters worried about her husband returning home and detecting the smell – “Don’t worry, we’ll tell him it’s pizza.”
Sue Devaney’s performance is an absolute tour de force. She is the glue of the family – and of the production. She provides much of the comic and physical energy, and the warmth of her character’s bond with her family (especially Billy) is palpable.
The design and direction of the production (by Anna Reid and Chris Lawson respectively) are simple and effective, every movement perfectly encapsulating the shifting emotional distance between characters and sustaining the pace of the piece. The multiple scene changes are also beautifully executed in semi-darkness. Visible only in silhouette, the actors stay very much in character as they move/leave/enter and the mood is enhanced by a terrific Dolly Parton soundtrack – drawing on some haunting covers as well as Dolly’s own classics.
The Kitchen Sink is sharp and well-crafted. OK, so the sibling characters are a little two-dimensional, and occasionally the humour feels contrived. But these are small flaws in a production that is full of heart and makes me laugh throughout. Given my terrible memory, I suspect that its funny lines will soon evaporate from my mind, but I know it will leave a residual sense of tremendous warmth and tenderness. A thoroughly engaging evening’s entertainment.