Melissa Blease reviews Caroline’s Kitchen starring Caroline Langrishe, Aden Gillett and James Sutton, on at Theatre Royal Bath until 30 March

Caroline Mortimer is living the contemporary good life as the nation’s favourite TV cook. Massive house with a fabulous kitchen that doubles-up as the set for her show? Tick. Loving husband? Tick. Son set to return home to celebrate a First from the University of Cambridge? Tick. But hold those perfect roast potatoes, for the meat at the heart of the matter is slowly rotting: alcoholic tendencies, secret inappropriate lover, national newspaper poised to publish photos of Caroline at her very (drunken) worst? Tick, tick, tick; behind the scenes, Caroline’s life is far from tickety-boo.

Caroline could be the result of an ungodly coupling between Delia Smith and Fanny Cradock, resulting in a wannabe Nigella with Sylvia Plath tendencies. Her TV show, meanwhile, is over-familiar to all of us: Jamie’s Friday Night Feast, Saturday Kitchen, Sunday Brunch, et al. If you’ve ever wondered what really goes on behind those tasteful scenes when the cameras stop rolling, even the very worst reality couldn’t beat this particular evening in Caroline Mortimer’s life.

Broadcast in real time to an audience who are at first lulled into a gentle sense of politely humourous Carla Lane sitcom-style security before being hurtled at full pelt towards Mike Leigh-style, hyperreal emotional (and physical) devastation, it’s a two-hour It’ll Be Alright On The Night outtake that not even Gordon Ramsay could survive.

Caroline Langrishe is deliciously dextrous in bringing duality to the role of Caroline Mortimer, slowly allowing us glimpses of the taut, anxious bundle of neurosis seething with frustration, dissatisfaction and panic that’s barely hidden behind the glossy, controlled veneer of ‘success.’ As Caroline’s husband Mike – a begrudging, crabby, malcontent buffoon with vile ideologies and a pervy attitude to women – Aden Gillett is both a figure of fun and a character you really wouldn’t mind seeing arse-up in a golf course bunker having suffered a heart attack (this is, he tells us, what he would have wanted). Both actors keep the tragi-comic tempo thrumming at a commendable pace throughout – tick, tick, tick.

Also joining us for dinner, Jasmyn Banks channels Absolutely Fabulous as Caroline’s ambitious temporary PA Amanda: when Caroline verges on Edina Monsoon territory (which she does, lots) Amanda morphs into Saffy. Meanwhile, James Sutton is heartbreakingly vulnerable as bewildered, beleaguered Graeme the carpenter (and supplier of other, erm, services to Caroline), while Elizabeth Boag brings subtle, sinister menace to the role of Graeme’s deeply troubled wife Sally

But it is perhaps Tom England as Caroline and Mike’s son Leo – a strongly-opinionated vegan and vehement climate change campaigner, about to embark on a stint as an aid worker in Syria – who elegantly, almost imperturbably steals the show. While the ‘revelation’ Tom so desperately wants to share with his self-obsessed parents may not actually be that shocking to most of us, he represents everything that Caroline and Mike are so desperately trying to avoid: the inevitable acceptance of mortality; the futility of blind faith; the instabilities of our rapidly-changing world; the acknowledgement of genuine passion.

As the chaos in the Mortimer household gathers momentum at such a harrowing pace that you may well end up cringing low in your seat, hand slapped over mouth in shock and dismay, England remains calm, strong and increasingly detached from the scenes of sheer, utter madness unfolding around him. Tom is a totes woke warrior on the battlefield of seriously dysfunctional family life… and ultimately, he’s the one with the resources to survive the war.

With a taught, tightly-written script written by Torben Betts and impeccably sharply-directed by Alistair Whatley, Caroline’s Kitchen represents a fabulously satisfying feast for fans of the family feud-themed fracas – and plenty of food for thought for all. 

Main image: Caroline Langrishe as Caroline Mortimer. Credit: Sam Taylor