Nick Spoors reviews Caroline's Kitchen at the Royal & Derngate, Northampton
If Caroline's Kitchen were a piece of food, it would be a peach. Soft and attractive on the outside with a rock-hard core.
The plot of this Royal auditorium production is not that complex. The titular Caroline (coincidentally, Caroline Langrishe from Lovejoy and lots more) is a middle-aged, middle-class family woman who happens also to have a burgeoning career as a TV chef.
Like many of her peers, her appeal and marketability depends very much on the idea of the perfect woman with the perfect life. When things slowly begin to unravel behind the scenes, it provides the dramatic tension for what follows.
Those unravelings I won't reveal for fear of creating a spoiler, but they are the normal sorts of crises that middle-class families in plays usually face. And there are no plot twists that will have you scratching a furrow in your scalp.
The stand-out feature is really the script, feeding the actors some good lines at rat-a-tat pace that invites them to show us what they can do. Unfortunately, in the beginning they didn't step up to the plate 100 per cent of the time.
The first half mainly saw Caroline and returning son Leo (Tom England) not listening to each other very much. The clever dialogue had them interrupting each other at every turn, half-finishing sentences and lots of other intricate word work. Pretty difficult stuff, in other words.
What we got initially was accidental pauses and lines that were quick out of the traps yet not quite hot on the heels of the set-up. Admittedly this was opening night at the Royal, but the actors were performing like dancers who couldn't quite get hit the beats.
The good news is this didn't continue for long. The introduction of Caroline's husband, Mike, (Aden Gillett), brought both laughs and a more complex character to get our teeth into. He has all the pent-up anger of a retired, repressed former bank employee, but he releases it with so much humour that he quickly became the most likeable person on stage.
At first, you think Mike's issues are the sole 'peach stone' element of the plot until it gradually becomes clear he has several rival claims.
And the handling of these I found to be the best thing about the Caroline's Kitchen. Particularly after the interval, a slightly more lubricated audience was enjoying even the most serious moments as the actors served them up with a side order of humour. A tricky skill which they brought off expertly.
By the end, we really didn't know whether to laugh or cry at this peach of a play. I think the laughs win out, just.
* Caroline's Kitchen runs until February 16. Visit royalandderngate.co.uk to book.