Old hands that do dishes

Washed up: Rik Makarem (Emmett) faces up to David Essex (Dressler) and Andrew Jarvis (Moss)

The Dishwashers

Birmingham Rep

***

THIS must be the ultimate kitchen sink drama set, as it is, in the dingy cellar of a top London restaurant where a trio of misfits are up to their elbows in soapy water, with hands nowhere near as soft as their face, washing an endless mountain of crockery and cutlery.

David Essex is Dressler, king of all he surveys, which admittedly is not much, just a couple of sinks, a bin of slops and a pile of spuds.

He is the head dishwasher with a management so appreciative and in awe of him that he is anonymous - the weekly time sheets still have the names of long departed staff. Dressler or the new boy don’t even have their own name as far as upstairs is concerned and having a name is important to Dressler. It shows you have respect, shows you are a dishwasher.

Dressler is a humourless bully with a line of philosophy that could have come from those funny little pars at the bottom of Reader’s Digest articles and he had a morality all of his own. He is for what he sees as right at one end with fear and subservience to management at the other.

Essex is rather sinister in the role, not with a threat of violence, but with verbal bullying in what was a very measured performance. It was impossible to warm to his Dressler or even like him. He was someone you could never take to and someone perhaps too close to home for many people who have suffered similar petty bullies in their own workplace.

Sadly either the sound needed tweaking or it took a while to become attuned to his voice but it was difficult to hear Essex clearly for the opening half of the first act, a problem which was happily resolved.

Dishwasher David Essex (Dressler) and Rik Makarem (Emmett) who just washes dishes

Assisting Dressler, slowly, is Moss, a sort of Del Boy’s Uncle Albert down on both his luck and working brain cells played beautifully by RSC actor Andrew Jarvis. Moss is ancient, on the brink of senility and dishwashing, or at least a place to go, a place where he has human contact, is his whole life.

He is long past it, hardly able to pull himself along let alone pull his weight, but no one has the heart to tell him, even when he is replaced.

Dressler's strange morality sees him paying the money he gets from the sale of  food he is stealing from the restaurant, his own little sideline, to the sacked Moss as wages so the old man won't realise he has lost the job that is his life. When he does find out his life is over, literally.

Into their comfortable world, comfortable being relative of course, comes Emmett, the new boy, and a fine performance from Rik Makarem. Emmett is a City high flier, a dealer making and spending a fortune in the hedonistic world of high finance, or rather he was until the crash and his loss of millions was discovered.

His waterside apartment has gone, he is living in a room with no window, his relationship with his girlfriend, who has no idea about his new job, is rocky and he sees a come down to being a dishwasher as a last resort to keep body and soul together – and that is where the real friction comes from.

To Emmett dishwasher in a restaurant where he once regularly dined is pretty well rock bottom, a necessity until he can get back on his feet, somewhere to bounce back from not something to embrace with any sort of future.

To Dressler there is a huge difference between washing dishes and being a dishwasher, a transition requiring a right of passage, a pinnacle of achievement. Dressler sees having low aspirations as making it easier to achieve all you want in life and being a dishwasher brings him great satisfaction; seeing the gleaming plates and silverware on tables as he enters the restaurant is all he has persuaded himself he wants in life.

Whether he believes that or resents it we never really discover but he does tell us, reassuringly, "As you get older your dreams get smaller".  In truth though we know no more about Dressler at the end than we did within five minutes of first meeting him. He is a cantankerous tyrant and you are never sure if what he says is truth or lies even when he admits what he has said is untrue. As for the man himself? His cards are superglued to his chest in that department.

Emmett, the high flier brought low, tries to improve conditions for the dishwashers but either from fear of management or fear of change and losing any control of his grubby empire, Dressler resists and it is no surprise when Emmett finally leaves.

That brings in new boy Burroughs, played by Jared Garfield, another who sees dishwashing as a job rather than a career, which brings the same friction, the same lecture and the same sermon from Dressler.

Festive cheer among the drudgery from Andrew Jarvis (Moss) with Rik Makarem (Emmett)

There is one final encounter between Dressler and the newly enriched Emmett, who is back on his well-heeled feet and whose wedding reception is being held upstairs in the restaurant.

Emmett realises that having put dishwashing behind him and gone back to his old hedonistic ways he has lost something from his life and tries to tell Dressler. But from Dressler there is just contempt. Not at his return to wealth, not at his returning as a customer, but because in his two years in the dingy cellar in Dressler’s exacting world, he never become in Dressler’s eyes the thing he should have aspired to, a dishwasher.

This new Rep production of Morris Panych's Broadway play of 2009 has been reworked for British audiences by Panych. As a play is is hardly uplifting and in many ways appears superficial with it difficult to find any real empathy with any character, we care little more for them when we leave than we did when we entered which may be the point. Theirs is a world we don't see and are never likely to see, which is probably how Dressler likes it.

As a play it seems unsure about whether it is a bleak comedy or just bleak and there are quite a few laughs hidden amid the grease and grime with my favourite:

Dressler: I was nothing but a prisoner when I came here.

Emmett: In what sense?

Dressler: In Her Majesty’s sense.

Matthew Wright’s scruffy, grubby, run down set, exuding grease and slops, complete with steam pipes and with working taps and real washing up, adds to the sense of depression but director Nikolai Foster manages a decent rhythm, not always easy in a one set production where life is numbingly boring and not a lot happens, to produce a thoughtful, well paced play, even if you do leave thanking your lucky stars for a dishwasher you switch on rather than argue with. Oh, and it is worth remembering the advice from Moss to never to enter a raffle in a chemists’ shop. To 15-02-14.

Roger Clarke 

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