Filled with the usual paraphernalia of family life, Dolly West’s could have been anyone’s kitchen. The room was clearly the hub of the household and the effective staging certainly made the audience feel like they were part of the furniture in this family’s home. However, from the first dialogue between Dolly West and kitchen maid Anna, it became clear that times were hard; far from the peaceful domestic life the audience might have anticipated. Amie M. Bjorklund’s Dolly West quickly commanded the attention of the audience. Bjorklund effectively portrayed a mature young woman, yet with a sense of vulnerability following talk of approaching war and lost love.
The entirety of Frank McGuinness’ critically acclaimed play takes place within this kitchen. Despite being set in the neutral Republic of Ireland, it becomes clear that World War II has not left the West family unscathed. In contrast to her free spirited past life in Italy, Dolly West became head of the household, which also involved caring for her elderly mother Rima. Following the arrival of English officer Alec Redding, whose past relationship with Dolly is hinted at, tensions between the family and strongly patriotic youngest sibling Justin are increased. Here the strength of Ryan Buen’s performance allowed the audience to believe that there was more to his anger than distrust of the English.
The complex family relationships were successfully explored and portrayed by the strong cast, but Sarah Levine’s Rima West shone throughout the play. Levine acted the part in a way which gave precedence to Rima’s wicked sense of humour, but also provided some of the most thought-provoking moments of the play. Furthermore, the chemistry between Levine and Bjorklund was certainly enjoyed by the audience. Rima’s quick wit was consistent throughout the play, the comedic moments essential in relieving the tension caused following the arrival of American soldiers Marco and Jamie.
The moments of comic relief were needed even more as the play progressed. Issues of jealously and loyalty emerged along with questions of identity. The dark shadow of the war continued to loom over the family, constantly reminding the audience that any moments of happiness were short-lived. However a particularly touching occurrence was the development of Justin and Marco’s relationship. This was undoubtedly a highlight of the production, acted with subtlety which made Justin’s character change believable. Buen certainly helped the audience to understand the confliction he was suffering; his endearing closeness to Marco certainly directed sympathy at him rather than frustration.
Despite being set in a single location, this production was by no means one dimensional. There were no distractions in this honest, sometimes dark, exploration of the realities of family life. The strength of the cast certainly contributed to the overall impact of the story; the audience were able to understand the characters’ flaws and empathise with their troubles. This is a play as much about tumultuous family relationships as it was about history.
Dolly West’s Kitchen realistically explored how the effects of war were felt no less harshly in a family home, but with a touch of humour and courage, demonstrating that this was no ordinary kitchen.
Words by Annabelle Collins