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The Café
The Coffee Works Project
21st March 2013

★★★☆☆

Jonathan Bullock and Christopher Kouros as John and Naz

Photography supplied by Ben Aitken

With sticky fingers in his till, and a baby on the way, struggling café owner Marcus (Paul Lincoln) is having to make hard decisions. Smaller portions, higher prices, no more staff freebies. Standing at the counter with his calculator at the ready, Marcus works out his profit margins as his staff dissent around him.

The battle cry is led by new graduate Joe (Jolyon Westhorpe), vaguely middle class and very embarrassed to be so, aligning himself with Marxism and trying to save the world through the power of protest. His colleagues are less politically minded, more occupied with paying their bills than standing up to the man - in the kitchen, there is Naz (Christopher Kouros), a Turkish chef, who by his own admission, does what he wants, and Jimmy (Nathan Robinson), a Polish kitchen porter who can barely string together a word of English. Joining Joe in front-of-house duties are John (Jonathan Bullock), a proud father-of-one and more working class than Joe will ever be, and Rose (Sophie Dickson), the daughter of two dentists, forged in the fires of private boarding school.

Slightly dysfunctional, but with a believable dynamic, the characters all fit together well. The banter between Marcus and Joe reveals a precarious working relationship, with familiarity having bred contempt long ago. Kouros brings an easy humour to all of his scenes, a rather whimsical middle ground, with Robinson stoically providing support in the largely silent Jimmy.

Ben Aitken's writing is tight, and frequently hilarious, having undergone a revision since The Café was first staged in May 2012 in another small venue in Brighton. However, as the hour progresses, you start to wonder where he's going with his script. It's a piece of observational comedy, set over the course of one day in a small business, which makes us laugh heartily in all the right places, but it doesn't seem to quite stand up as an entire play on its own. It neither hangs together with a strong, driving storyline, nor is it a thematic piece where nothing happens deliberately to explore existentialism, nihilism or inertia - in pieces like Chekov's Three Sisters or perhaps more fittingly, Godot.

There's nothing wrong with a sixty minute play - sometimes that length of time is all you need, but The Café feels like the opening act of something more complex. Had we been told this was an excerpt rather than a completed work, we would have probably given this another star - at least then we could have handed it the benefit of the doubt, that there was more meat on its bones.

The Café is being staged in association with the nearby Old Red Lion, which is a natural partnership. One of our favourite theatre pubs, the Old Red Lion provides a small, intimate space where the actors often perform within touching distance of their audience. It's just as true here, in The Coffee Works Project café. By making this work a site-specific production, director Josh Roche brings a credibility to the proceedings. The set, so to speak, is authentic, down to every crumb of the chocolate cake that Marcus savours in front of his disillusioned workforce. But unlike many other site-specific shows, audience interaction is non-existent. While we believe and enjoy the show, we're not sucked into it.

And due to the layout of the venue - in particular, the one very opaque wall running down the middle - Roche is limited in his options. It could have been more interesting to seat the audience at tables and perhaps catch a glimpse of the jeggings-wearing Mrs Lehman, who seems to have been written out in this second outing. Roche however uses the space he has to its best effect.

Despite a few flaws, we would recommend The Café as, interactive or not, site specific shows always have a touch of magic about them. And although the script leaves us wanting more, what is there has been written with a tremendous amount of flair and humour.

The Café opened on 19th March and runs until 6th April 2013.

Nearest tube station: Angel (Northern)



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