Virginia Plain - KXT Thursday 17, February 2022
“Chef” is an Edinburgh Fringe First (2014) winning playscript by British Egyptian playwright Sabrina Mahfouz. Produced in Sydney by Virginia Plain, directed by Victor Kalka and performed by Alice Birbara. This is a satisfying 50 minute monologue of full-flavoured and sinewy language. It is presented as part of the Panimo Pandemonium festival of new and early emerging artists at KXT.
Sabrina Mahfouz was inspired to write the play after interviewing mega-celebrity chef Ollie Dabbous (google him – a rabbit hole of glorious food!). Beyond all, Dabbous is obsessed with simplicity and making something the best it can be.
And so, the play opens with a peach, a woman in a short-sleeved chef jacket, tattoos on her arms, a pair of grey track pants and runners. This is Chef. We hear the journey from haute-cuisine to a prison kitchen. This chef is a convicted inmate – but the playwright takes her time for this revelation such is the confidence of the text.
Leading us through her world of mouth-watering dishes and painful memories, “Chef” explores attitudes to food, and notions of violence, love and hope. Sabrina Mahfouz has been the Sky Arts Academy Scholar for Poetry, and this background may be what grounds the play in the rhythms and structures of performance poetry. The writing is highly sensitive to the flow of language, and is as much interested in the beauty of language as the subversive story she tells. The seduction juxtaposes accounts of horrific deaths, violence and abuse with a la cart sauces, jus, honey, salmon and curry. Food is a way out for Chef and she aims to inspire others to a fresh purpose behind bars. But can she break free from the limitations of her world and her past?
“I’d never been in love / but I decided that I’d know when I was / because the man would remind of the way/ seagulls glide out of stalactite clouds, / suddenly, / smoothly, / that’s how he’d find me”
I was impressed with Alice Birbara in a production of “Constellations”(again, Virginia Plain company) some time ago and it is a pleasure to encounter her again with this robust script. She is a striking presence. Alice confidently balances the nuances of this, often, poetic text in an understated and focussed performance that keeps us hooked. I hope we get to see more of Alice Birbara in future productions.
Victor Kalka as director and designer create an unfussed production. A mottled white tiled floor, a white board and a white squiggly light reminiscent of something from the back of a ‘fridge all point to the desire, perhaps, to wipe-the-slate-clean; to escape the past, to reinvent the world again, to have genuine agency and choice. The production is supported by a gentle lighting design (Jasmin Borsovszky) and sound design (Ryan Devlin).
With this short run under their belt I hope the company will find other opportunities to present it again. It seems crazy that in a festival of emerging work that artists are only given three performance opportunities. This project – for one - is perfect festival fare. A program which allows artists and teams to present the works across the entire season not only ensures audience reach but a deepening of the artistry on show.