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written by Tza Drake
directed by Paul McLaughlin

at BATS Theatre (Out Of Site), Cnr Cuba & Dixon, Wellington
21 May 2013

Reviewed by John Smythe, 22 May 2013

The title tells us someone dies and within the first few minutes the hints are very strong as to who that might be. No surprises there, except the programme credits an actor as playing that character. The other questions are as you'd expect: who, why, how and when? 

The kitchen in question is in a restaurant. Denis Hearfield's set features a prep bench up-stage centre, a set restaurant table down right, and office desk stage left. And down in one corner is an easel menu which tracks the time structure – backwards.

On Friday morning everyone is behaving strangely, suspiciously and unsubtly with it. It's hard to get a hang of the style of Tza Drake's My Kitchen Kills, directed by Paul McLaughlin. Is this tending towards farce, broad comedy, a genre send-up …?

The focus is squarely on plot being played out with not very much depth of character. We get their circumstances in ways that go to possible motive for the yet-to-be-declared murder but their characteristics are superficial rather than deeply psychological, as may befit a good murder mystery.

So the actors are more, well, acting than being. They are utensils or additives rather than flesh-and-blood ingredients as they stir and fold according to Drake's ‘whodunnit' recipe, adding touches of colour and texture where possible.

As Chef, Francis Biggs chops a mean carrot and does sardonic with bitters quite tastily. His protégé, Sam – Kenneth Gaffney – offers a dash of sweetness with his eagerness to please then adds an after-taste of self-preservative.

The head waiter, Steff, is Alex Greig's fifth role in as many months so far this year. This time he plays dispassionately amoral, if not sociopathic; apparently sapped of profound emotion. Or that's how it seems at first. He's saucy, as needed, but rather bland with it.

Jean Sergent's Kirsty, the waitress, brings a bit more zest to her emotions, what with having financial and therefore landlord problems and solving – or rather avoiding them – them with drink. Either Kirsty has the least to hide or she is over-compensating.

Their boss, the owner, is Barry, and Michael Ness lays his unpleasantness out in ungarnished strips: take it or leave it.

Then there's the cleaner, played by Mohamed Abdilahi, with a keen alertness and a piquant preciseness with grammar: about the only real surprise in the play, which itself is surprising in a genre that usually involves a good twist or three.

Also lacking is a level of tension that could earn it the sobriquet ‘thriller'. There are predicaments, sure, and when the detective – Stefan Alderson – arrives the proverbial eggshells are in evidence.

But – despite the odd flutter at the TAB – there are no high emotional stakes to engage our concern, and nowhere much to invest our empathy.

To be fair, the way the scenes track back in time does raise questions that do get answered as we find out why people have done as they did. But without emotional engagement it becomes a rather academic exercise. And there is a place for that within this genre, except that's where the testing of intellect comes in and there's not much brain-challenge to be had on the menu here either.

Sometimes strange uses of the space see any imagined geography of an actual restaurant dispensed with, placing the actors and furniture nowhere else within our willing-to-be-suspended disbelief but on the Bats stage.

On opening night, then, it was undercooked but it could well be that as the season progresses the ingredients will prove to have greater potential to produce a more profoundly pleasing repast. Or maybe the recipe itself needs more work, to fully explore the necessary complexity of the genre.
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 Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] (The Dominion Post);