Chris Eldon Lee reviews “The Dishwashers”, which is at Birmingham Repertory Theatre until February 15th 2014
This is an excellent vehicle for the dramatic talents of the former rock star David Essex. There’s no glitz or glamour (in fact, quite the opposite) and he doesn’t burst into song. Instead, he builds up a detailed and wittily observed portrait of a working class geezer with a crummy job and no aspirations to better himself…..but who nevertheless has pride in his monotonous work (“We are the unseen reliability of this establishment”) and a well-formed and distinctly individual moral view of the world.
Dressler has been washing dishes in the same restaurant basement for 30 years. His ancient colleague Moss (Andrew Jarvis) has all the appearance of someone who sleeps in shop doorways and is reaching the end of everything. So a new boy arrives, played by the much younger Rik Makarem. Emmett has fallen on unspecified hard times and is now faced with washing the dishes he once dined off in the bright upstairs. In a play fundamentally about class and reality, he has to cope with the painfully unexpected reality of spiralling down through the class system to work with people on the very edge of his society. He’s lost his Paradise and it’s an insightful experience.
The writer Morris Panych, like many artists, served his own creative apprenticeship in restaurants. It’s what you do when you can’t get more meaningful work. And I’d hazard a guess that his cast probably all did the same at some stage. So what’s especially strong about this play is the ingrained authenticity…even down to the fully plumbed set.
The script might have been more momentous, but the philosophical banter is original and fun. It brims with ideas that might nestle down well with the writing of Pinter, Beckett or Orwell.
We never quite know what to make of Dressler. The greasy basement is his kingdom and, like ‘Animal Farm’s’ Boxer, he’s a willing workhorse who knows his place and accepts abuse without wanting to make a fuss. But he also has an independent, exploratory mind that keeps us on our toes. He’s the sort of enigma who probably goes home to meticulously scrub his doorstep whilst reading Karl Marx.
Essex presents the role impeccably. He has several long monologues to deliver and the timing of his lines is constantly brilliant (so all that singing wasn’t wasted, then).
He also has most of the washing up gags. “Know your enemy. Your enemy is parmesan cheese”. His explanation of his neat backdoor meat scam brought the house down, and his smiling, unbridled love of seeing his plates sparkle is endearing.
Andrew Jarvis takes risks with the old codger. His hair is long, white and straggly and he barks out his lines in a way that puts them at the very edge of comprehension. He plays Moss as a long-forgotten man with a work rate so lamentable if ‘they’ remembered he was still there, he’d be sacked on the spot. It’s a memorable, almost daring portrayal, which answers the age-old question of whatever happens to restaurant leftovers? (Answer : they’re eaten by left over men).
This is the British premiere of a nine year old Canadian play and I don’t suppose it will ever go ‘mega’; but if you too have stood at the kitchen sink and wondered about life in general, you’ll find three soul mates at Birmingham Rep this week.
Visit www.birmingham-rep.co.uk for information about Birmingham Rep.