By Sabrina Mahfouz. Virginia Plain with KXT bAKEHOUSE. Director Victor Kalka. KXT Kings Cross Hotel. 25 Jan- 4 Feb, 2023

Reviewed : February 28, 2023 *

Photo : Clare Hawley

In a very tight, very concentrated production, Alice Birbara reprises her 2022 performance of this searing, yet lyrical play by British-Egyptian poet and playwright Sabrina Mahfouz. The character Birbara plays is a convicted criminal in a women’s prison. Once a haute-cuisine chef, she has earned the privilege of running the prison kitchen. And that’s where we meet her – where she tells her story interspersed with graphic descriptions of the dishes she used to create.

Sabrina Mahfouz has crafted her play as carefully as an epic poem. The language of it is rhythmic, lyrical – whether it be the mouth-watering, detailed descriptions of the dishes Chef remembers creating or the harsh, distressing stories of the events that led to her incarceration. Yet it is also confronting, because so many of her memories are underscored by violence, unassuaged anger … and grief.

Director Victor Kalka ensures that Birbara carries the burden Mahfouz has created for this Chef very carefully. With superb control, like a tightly coiled spring, Birbara moves from almost eloquent descriptions of a perfect peach or the red juice of rhubarb, to bleak memories of her past or graphic images of a more recent, bloody event. Every movement is exactly timed, every gesture relevant and related. There is no room to breathe in her prison except for stolen moments when she writes up snippets of her menus in her stark, white kitchen.

Kalka has also ensured that his set uses the transverse stage of the theatre to its best effect. White tiles line the floor and two walls. The only props a stainless-steel trolley, a plate, a peach and a whiteboard. Symbolic fluorescent bars flare harshly on the only window.

Photo : Clare Hawley

Encased thus, Birbara faces her audience resolutely, fixing them with dark, expressive eyes, confining them with her in this austere space, where she paces at times, sinks slowly to floor at others, or stands perfectly still as she describes a poignant memory … “seagulls glide out of stalactite clouds”. There are many sides to this character, all of them told in deftly chosen words and phrases that confine its performer in a variety of different walls …

I cook here, create here,
make here be as much of life as I can
because outside of this
I’m not safe,
I don’t know the way.

This is a hard gig, both emotionally and physically demanding, but Alice Birbara is lithe, athletic, energetic, all of which she consolidates into the restrictions and restraints that drive this character … whilst still sensitively honouring the poetic rhythm and sophisticated structure of Mahfouz’s writing. It is a powerful performance.

First published in Stage Whispers magazine

*Opening night