James Walker, Hannah Morrish, Joe Cole
The trajectory is not an unfamiliar one. A talented young chef rises to prominence on the back of his skill and innovative thinking in the kitchen; he becomes rich and famous but also over-confident. He overextends himself, and though his cookery books are bestsellers, he also embarks on a number of ill-judged projects and product endorsements, losing sight of the passion and talent that his career was founded on.
Based on Ruth Cowens book of the same name, James Grahams lively play for the National Youth Theatre charts the life of Alexis Soyer, arguably Britains first celebrity chef.
Fleeing to London following the French revolution, the young Alexis, gifted but also determined and hard-working, rises rapidly to become head chef at the newly opened Reform Club.
But his success soon goes to his head. The word genius is bandied about and he believes it. He makes the error of thinking that he is indispensible, that the success of the Reform is down to him alone, and takes to berating club members who dare to request a little more pepper on their lamb.
The story is ripe with modern parallels and Grahams playful if episodic script makes much of them. There are references to Masterchef and a more general commentary on contemporary celebrity. The play also includes irreverent portraits of Queen Victoria, Mary Seacole, Madame Tussaud and Florence Nightingale, the latter of whom is depicted as an utter egoist, a foul-tongued rump-slapper with little regard for the men under her care.
A lot of care has clearly gone into the look of Paul Rosebys production. The two-level set successfully conveys the world of the kitchens below and the club above, with a little lift to show transition between the two. Though Soyer wears period costume, everyone else wears chefs whites, and the majority of props and costumes have been fashioned out of kitchen utensils. Queen Victorias skirts are a clinking carapace of whisks and ladles while Soyers prima ballerina lover wears a tutu emblazoned with washing up gloves. When the action shifts to the Crimea, one unfortunate soldier oozes innards in the form of a string of sausages.
James Walker is suitably charismatic as Soyer but the production is hampered by its sizeable cast. There are forty performers in all and while there are some scenes that benefit from this, more often than not the sheer volume of bodies makes for a cluttered, messy production. There is little room for connection between characters and the production takes a while to find its feet, the early scenes clogged and noisy. There are also more practical problems with vocal projection; some cast members are better at it than others and several lines of dialogue get swallowed up by the high-ceilinged space.
Things tighten up considerably in the second half; the narrative grip of Soyers story is allowed to take hold and there is genuine poignancy in the later scenes. The large ensemble cast is used more judiciously and there is space for some strong individual acting from both Walker and Hanna Morrish as his ill-fated wife, Emma. To use one of the food metaphors so prevalent in the play: it’s a rich dish, one with rather too much going on but with a clarity of flavour that comes through in the end.