Chef, Underbelly, Review

Rating (out of 5)
Show info
Sabrina Mahfouz (writer), Kirsty Patrick Ward (director), Fran Reidy (set design), Jo Palmer (lighting design), Ed Lewis (sound).
Jade Anouka (Chef)
Running time

February 2012, the life of Ollie Dabbous is transformed overnight: from unknown chef at his new London restaurant, to a full reservations book due to rave reviews.

Playwright and poet Sabrina Mahfouz interviewed Dabbous to try and get inside the head and passionate heart of a chef in order to create this emotional rollercoaster of a 50-minute monologue.

At Dabbous it's all about concrete floors, heavy metal-work screens, cages for coats, hard-edged wooden, cloth-free tables.

In Chef, our young narrator’s world is a similar environment with metal bars and cage-like cells. As an inmate, she works as a chef in a prison.

The Big Belly theatre creates the ideal atmosphere: a dark, damp, corrugated-iron-roofed dungeon, giving a sense of underground entrapment.

Here, under a flickering neon light, a young girl, mid-twenties, stands proudly in traditional whites, chequered bandana and rolled up track suit bottoms. This is her kitchen, her domain, the worktops kept scrupulously clean.

She seems naïve, gentle, feminine, at ease, but the memories which haunt her are subsumed by the fear of confrontation, the power struggle for the underclass of society.

Given the chance to cook and create recipes makes life taste better, finding beauty and goodness in food. What could be more delicious than a perfect ripe peach? Her eyes light up at the thought of a cake, just eggs, milk, flour, sugar, to experience the pure joy of baking. The lyrical text is enriched with a rapping rhythm.

She writes the name of a dish on a white board - Coconut Curried Tofu - savouring the idea of spices and flavours to be concocted. But prison life is ruled by budget cuts and profit margins, where books are being banned along with drugs.

But why has she ended up in prison? We hear stories about her childhood, escaping for an adventure with her father when he worked in the galley of a ship. Sailing to the Shetland islands, the gales, seagulls, high seas, fog and wind, the route ruled by the shipping forecast is beautifully described.

Reminiscing about these travels, she reverts back to being 16 as she jumps on to the worktop, legs spread wide, like a rebellious teenager. Her innocent young life has been destroyed by nightclub fist fights, an abusive father and boyfriend, “groomed into doing things for boys who will never be men.”

Jade Anouka is an extraordinary actress, captivating in the way she expresses her passion for food with a sing song, hip hop energy and the cheeky humour of South London slang. In an instant, her voice is tougher, angrily punching out her feelings of lonely, dark despair.

This hypnotic, jazzy, narrative performance style is akin to the fabulous free-flowing beat poetry of Kerouac and Ginsberg.

The theatricality of the piece is not assisted with sound effects, music or props. Just Jade telling us her heartbreaking story. But here in the prison kitchen she has hope and inspirational dreams to keep fighting.

If she had her own restaurant, she reveals, "the design would be industrial chic. Here, I would have the freedom to make yellow tail sashimi!”

Show times: 31st July t- 17 August, @ 6.10pm.
Ticket prices: £9.50 - £ 10.50.