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Dated 14th February 2020 

By David Slater , NODA NW

Joking Around. Plumber Pete (Sam Bell) shares a light moment with on-off girlfriend Sophie (Hannah Sutclifffe)

NODA Review of The Kitchen Sink

by Tom Wells

Directed by Tilly Sutcliffe and Jack Wagman

This is a relatively new play from Tom Wells, a playwright who is making a name for himself in theatrical circles at the moment, a piece which plays with notions of what we expect from the term ‘Kitchen Sink’ when applied to plays of a certain vintage but which happens to have a very literal reference to the kitchen sink in the home of the household in question: rather clever really! The action here in this production had been relocated to Todmorden – and why not?! - from the original East Yorkshire seaside setting of Withernsea, allowing for some more local references and a few cheeky winks at some familiar places and recognisable locations which were all to the production’s benefit. First time directors Tilly Sutcliffe and Jack Wagman had clearly invested a good deal of time, effort and energy into making the play very much their own, putting their own individual stamp on the piece and creating something different. 

The play’s focus around the kitchen sink of the title gave the Todmorden crew a chance to shine with a superbly constructed set, giving the realistic atmosphere of a busy household. The set cleverly extended out to give the impression that we were peering into the lives of the family as if ‘over the garden wall’: this was a lovely touch and added to the intimacy and realism of the piece. Given that the play addresses a modern take on the ordinary, everyday lives of characters who – had the play been written in the late 1950s - would have been the working-class stars of their own kitchen sink drama, it was interesting to see how a contemporary take on how the seemingly quotidian daily grind can nevertheless illuminate deeper issues and themes would suit our modern times.​ 

Kath and Martin, the harried heads of the household, were played by talented Todmorden regulars Janet and John Spooner with a down to earth charm which suited the feel of the piece very well. Martin the milkman has issues with his milk float and the more pressing issue of rapidly becoming obsolete in a world where people rarely have their milk delivered. Dinner lady Kath has plenty on her plate too, along with a blocked kitchen sink... Their children, Billy and Sophie, have very different issues of their own to grapple with: Billy’s artistic urges in the direction of Dolly Parton; Sophie’s struggles with anger management issues. Both were played again with an understated realism by Theo Hewson-Betts and Hannah Sutcliffe. Young plumber Pete is trying his best to work his way into Sophie’s affections (and with a dodgy sink centre stage all evening, what could be handier than having a handsome young plumber on tap?!) and Sam Bell made a lovely job of infusing the character with a perfect blend of comedy and tragedy. 

The ostensibly everyday concerns and day to day worries of a typical Northern family may not sound like the stuff of theatrical magic but the way the play weaves both mildly humorous and semi-serious threads throughout the course of the evening made for a pleasant entertainment, reminding us of the difference between the lives of the working class today and that of the 1950s and ‘60s when ‘kitchen sink’ dramas broke through to revolutionise how we view the lives of those presented to us on stage.

Kath (Janet Spooner) and Billy (Theo Hewson-Betts) bond over a bit of culinary Dolly Sing-along

One interesting technique the play uses to highlight the inner workings of each of the characters was the use of a monologue where everyone on stage could tell us how they really feel at various intervals. These were all superbly done by each of the cast members and didn’t feel the slightest bit ‘stagey’ or superfluous. Janet Spooner gave the affectionate matriarch a caring and sympathetic portrayal, her frustrations never coming between the obvious love she has for those around her: as we know all too well, the beating heart – and much more besides - of every Northern home is the all-powerful – if long-suffering – mum! John Spooner’s beleaguered milkman Martin was given a straightforward and naturalistic portrayal which suited the theatrical dynamic of the piece and helped to add much flesh to the bones of the character. I was particularly impressed with Theo Hewson-Betts as Billy: the decision to play the character as a fully-rounded individual who just happened to be gay, rather than a flouncing effeminate stereotype, was refreshing. After all, the troubled teen’s issues stemmed from his doubts about leaving home to study – and his artistic worries over the nature of ‘kitsch’ where Dolly Parton was concerned! - rather than his sexuality, which neither he nor anyone else had a problem with. Hannah Sutcliffe as Sophie matched her body language to suit the character extremely well: of my bugbears when reviewing performances with a teenage cast is the fact that there is a tendency to adopt a round-shouldered, straight-armed sulking posture and deliver lines at breakneck speed, no matter what the character or the situation. Hannah cleverly adopted elements of the ‘stroppy teenager’ to her role and brought Sophie to life as a result, her various problems and issues all the more recognisable an affecting because of it. Sam Bell was a real tonic as plumber Pete: his colourful off-stage grandmother became slightly less of an unlikely and unrealistic figure than she might otherwise have been thanks to Sam’s sharp performance. Burdened with as many problems as the rest of the household put together, Sam gave a performance which successfully brought the best out of both the comical and tragic elements of the character.

This was a production which had obviously benefitted from a pair of young first-time directors who had clearly inspired the cast to give of their best: no mean achievement this. The opening montage was a lovely touch and blocked perfectly; the musical interludes between each scene gave the audience an appreciation of the passing of time and again, were very well conceived and executed; the set and overall presentation of the kitchen was another Todmorden triumph and helped to set just the right tone. I’m not sure the ‘fight scene’ was as successful as it might have been – and the pacing of much of the dialogue was a little ponderous at times too – but these are things that can be worked on when Tilly and Jack next occupy the director’s chair.  

The above point about the pacing of the action and dialogue actually made me think about the play as a whole and whether a sharper momentum could have helped the material come across more successfully. The play itself seemed to be not quite funny enough to be an out and out comedy, nor hard-hitting enough to be a more serious reflection on contemporary mores. For me, ‘The Kitchen Sink’ rather falls between two stools as a result. It is to their credit that the good folk at the Hippodrome managed to create such an entertaining evening with a production that, once again, highlighted the wealth of talent at TAODS. My thanks go to everyone involved for another gold-plated Todmorden production and an especially big thank you for the wonderful hospitality and friendly welcome which always accompanies a trip to the Hippodrome.