Chef: Alice Birbara Theatre Review

Rebecca Varidel
29th Jan 2023

CHEF written by Sabrina Mahfouz performed by Alice Birbara directed by Victor Kalka

Alice Birbara is pure undiluted power on the stage. She energetically straddles this moving story of how one woman went from a fine dining head chef to running a prison kitchen, with gripping physical emotional and mental dexterity.

Physically she commands the stage, commands the attention of the audience. Every movement is guided, with purpose, meaning. Her physicality convinces us of her profession, convinces us of her past, adds impetus to the script. With each dish she writes on the whiteboard, every body part is animated, each gestures articulates, even her pause.

“I fell in love with the rhythmic poetry of Mahfouz’s script, which reads like modern Shakespeare,” said Birbara. “Chef’s resilience and determination despite the difficult circumstances she faces is inspiring.”

Incredible innit

To be fair, Birbara is already working with an incredible script. In Chef, playwright Sabrina Mahfouz plates up a serenade to food. The words speak to our hearts and palates in a way familiar to foodies. To me as a qualified chef, it resonates. I know these words, these feelings about food. The love for the seasonal ingredient. Honouring them. The care and detail of plating. Yet Mahfouz' subtly nuanced play is so much more, boldly restorative, quietly political, although we don't realise this until the closing sentences. Or at least I didn't.

Beyond her actions, Alica Birbara convinces us with her words, not just through the emotions she portrays in them, but also in the accent of each character. Perhaps this is the finest one person show that I have witnessed. If I myself were Mahfouz perhaps I could relate this better, but I'm not and somehow my words just don't seem to do justice to either the play or the actor.

As background for the superlative performance by thespian Lebanese Australian Alice Birbara, the set was clean and very striking. The simplicity of tiled floors and walls with stainless steel trolley gave the feeling of a commercial kitchen. Victor Kalka as director and designer has delivered an outstanding night of theatre. The vertical and overhead lighting by Jasmin Borsovszky was equally persuasive.

The Australian premiere, presented in 2022 as part of the Panimo Festival received rave reviews from critics and audiences alike. For this return season by Virginia Plain Theatre in association with bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company, Alice Birbara and creatives received ongoing rounds of applause to accompany the standing ovation of opening night.

This season runs at KX Theatre (Kings Cross Hotel) until 4 February 2023. Be sure to see it!

Photo by Clare Hawle