REVIEW: The Dishwashers (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday, March 29)

What's on.
What's on.

A strangely moving and often thought-provoking work played out in the sometimes surreal setting of a dirty restaurant basement, the far from pleasant working environment for a team of dishwashers, is receiving a well-earned UK premiere on a new tour which stops off at Brighton this week.

It’s suds law for The Dishwashers: a hard-working team ignored by well-to-do clientele who barely notice the plates and cutlery being used for their meals, yet for those who clean them it is more than a way of life.

Canadian Morris Panych’s play feels like the sort of thing Samuel Beckett might have come up with had he ever written a TV sitcom – an oddity embracing an odyssey. Audiences might detect elements of Arthur Miller and Harold Pinter amid the grime, but the characters are frothily fresh and the story much lighter and more easily engaging than in the downtrodden world the likes of Willy Loman or Vladimir and Estragon inhabit.

There are moments (especially with some intriguing lighting) when you wonder if the story of a down on his luck young high-flyer, who once upon a time was one of the rich diners but is now forced to earn a meagre living washing dishes, and his older colleagues is going to develop into something different: you imagine the line “Hell’s kitchen is other people” can only be a breath away.

Yet as the play progresses (and particularly in a tight second half, with full credit to director Nikolai Foster) we begin to understand that this is a tale of hope and despair, of privilege and satisfaction with one’s lot, of prisons and liberation, of ambition and cynicism. It’s a world where life goes on, even when confronted by death, yet where ideology is quickly crushed. Especially telling is the small “garden corner” where dead plants in the first scene become newly-sown seeds, healthy greenery, and carrots by the final scene.

In the main this is a three-hander, and it is largely down to the strong performances of the central cast that the play succeeds as well as it does.

David Essex is clearly the big draw, weaned away from his more familiar musical performances to a straight acting role with more than a slight twinkle in his eye as a far from subservient servant. Essex plays the world-weary, long-serving Dressler, filled with dry wit and wisdom (one of his early lines about cracking a crème brulee seems to point the way for his character) and with more than a knack for philosophy – Plate-o perhaps. It can be hard to get a grip on the character – is he a bully or does he have a heart? - but Essex is in complete control and explores the part pleasingly.

Rik Makarem is superb as new boy Emmett, giving us a real sense of his fall from wealth and entitlement and the desire to climb back up the ladder to renewed affluence. Forced to wear ill-fitting workclothes, every attempt he makes at an almost Orwellian revolution or escape is met with sarcasm and discouragement. Even when he returns to his past life, he is unable to shake himself entirely free from the underworld that has claimed a part of his soul.

As the downtrodden Moss, Andrew Jarvis is like one of Shakespeare’s tragic clowns: old, unwanted, terminally ill, and eccentric. The only luck he has ever had is winning an enema in a prize draw (“that’s what you get for entering a raffle at a chemist’s”) and perhaps he is the only character who can truly be said to escape. And praise, too, for Jared Garfield, who makes much of a brief appearance as the new dishwasher at the end.

It’s always good to see a new play, and this production of The Dishwashers is definitely a kitchen sink drama with heart and spirit, containing plenty to ponder and entertain.