Chef, Soho Theatre

Chef, Ed Fringe 2014, courtesy Richard Davenport 035“Incredible innit, Food.”

Sabrina Mahfouz’s Chef is a one-woman play in the kitchen of a women’s prison. It’s no Orange is the New Black, though. Jade Anouka’s nameless chef shares her passion for food, recipes and stories of broken families and prison life. Anouka’s captivating, nuanced performance and Mahfouz’s poetic, imagery-filled verse holds the audience’s attention for nearly an hour without faltering.

Anouka’s performance is the primary pillar that supports this production’s success. With an innate musicality and unwavering energy, she balances the character’s true love for her work with the traumatic tales of an abusive father, a shady boyfriend and an incident that happened in her prison kitchen yesterday. Her interpretation both honours and personalises Mahfouz’s character, bringing an infectious optimism to a character that has endured so much hardship. Though this play probably works best in intimate theatres like Soho’s upstairs space, it is a great shame to deny larger numbers of people from seeing her performance.

Mahfouz’s writing is the next pillar that makes this story into a great play. Her use of poetry flips back and forth with street slang and swears, a continual reminder that not all inmates have limited vocabulary or intelligence but still keeps her believable. She gives us a truly human character with all flaws and perfections laid bare. She creates devastating empathy for this unnamed young woman doing so well at rising from the ashes of her childhood by becoming a fine dining head chef, only to be locked away for a crime she swears she didn’t commit. (Though all convicts swear their innocence, don’t they?)

Mahfouz and Anouka have worked together previously, on Chef and another play. These two clearly make a fantastic team, but both are excellent, established artists in their own right. Mahfouz is certainly a playwright to watch out for, and Anouka is a performer not to be missed.

Despite the stellar performance and writing, the scene transitions occasionally felt abrupt. Line delivery and technical transitions could have slowed down slightly, though that may have caused energy levels to drop. Another uncertainty is who the audience is in relation to chef. She is in her kitchen alone. They are not questioning her about her suspected involvement in yesterday’s incident, nor do they seem to be fellow inmates. Anouka addresses directly, so they don’t seem to be in her imagination, either. Her story keeps audience focus nonetheless.

As brilliant as Orange is the New Black is, the vibrancy and depth in Mahfouz and Anouka’s chef makes the show feel shallow and stereotyped. Even though it works excellently as a stand-alone short play, this is a character that should be seen again. This is not a production to skip over, despite its diminutive size and the fact it’s a one-woman show.

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