We step into the dimly-lit theatre of The Lion & Unicorn, a soft, almost dream-like blue wash over the noticeable emptiness of the stage – save for a skeletal cardboard cut-out resembling a door frame, carefully set stage left. There was nothing, yet everything to expect. Researching about The Cardboard Kitchen Project had been a task in itself; the all-female, London-based Singaporean team from FK Co-Lab seemed to have made any description of the play’s actual content deliberately vague. It is billed as a ‘cross-cultural one-woman play’ that teems with ‘real stories, borrowed utensils and secret ingredients’.
The audience’s journey starts with Jennie’s (the effervescent Varshini Pichemuthu) opening monologue about the concept of change and movement, as she steps in and out repeatedly of the door frame. It is slowly revealed that Jennie herself is on a similar journey. She tells the audience about the first few days of her move from Singapore to London to pursue further education – her first experience living overseas – and we meet her slightly ignorant and exasperating housemate, which Varshini caricatures with American aplomb. This is the first we see of Varshini’s many effective shifts into various figures in Jennie’s life. From her parents at home with their idiosyncrasies, to the fantastical characters in her fables, Varshini successfully embodies a space for herself amidst the stage’s bare-bones aesthetic. The past resurfaces in the form of the eponymous cardboard kitchen, which is sent to her in a (bigger) cardboard box and which she reconstructs to the mirth of the audience. As the cardboard kitchen is put together, her stories overlap and layer in a similar way. The performance comes to a head with the discovery of a devastating letter and court document in the same package. We see how fiction and reality, story and experience, parallel each other in a heart-rending way for Jennie, and to some extent, why she was compelled to leave home.
The performance touches on many aspects of intergenerational memory and cross-cultural experiences, from being unable to recreate a mother’s traditional dishes, to racial microaggressions. I had to smile at Jennie’s sardonic recounting of her housemate asking the much-dreaded question of “where are you (actually) from?’. Being part of a demographic that remains largely misrepresented and underrepresented in Britain, I feel a sense of empowerment and validation in seeing my everyday struggles portrayed on stage. However, while these cultural motifs were familiar – Jennie’s attempts at explaining what being a Singaporean entails, how she anglicises her birth name Jayshree, her description of food and accents – they start to lose their traction in the narrative towards the end of the play.
The text switches between Brechtian elements of informal exposition, to conversational dialogue and formal narration. Varshini moves between them with great dexterity and clarity, her physical movement and presence assured and enjoyable. Of note too are all the props and set (including a mobile phone) made entirely of cardboard, drawing a striking contrast between these material objects and the impermanence of Jennie’s memories and identity.
Director Faezah Zulkifli has mentioned in interviews that she wants to explore “cultural inheritance” and “oral tradition”, and the impact a space potentially has on the preservation of identity through memory. The idea of the kitchen and family recipes as a spatial cornerstone of domestic life and storytelling is a poignant one. Jennie interacts with her audience in a way that a stand-up comedian, a village storyteller in the past, or a parent over the dinner table would – with varying levels of cognisance of her role in performing and living the narrative. Throughout the performance, there are distinct intrusions of reality into fiction and vice versa, and the dramaturgical amalgamation of the two towards the end – where a bedtime story involving tropical island gods and magic is revealed to be an allegorical declamation of spousal infidelity – is a strong statement on how human suffering has remained a universal inheritance.
Yet despite its strengths, The Cardboard Kitchen Project remains on a plateau, never quite managing to find the right edges to jump off from.
It races through too many ideas in the challenging span of an hour, coupled with Jennie’s psychological narrative which took a sudden, dramatic turn. Jennie shares a story or two about her family, cuisine, and cross-cultural experiences, but the text seldom delves deep into their relation to the larger themes at play. Some segments feel contrived, such as an alienating scene where Jennie sashays down the bustling streets of London to club music and flashing lights, in overt contrast to the performative hyper-naturalism the audience had been conditioned to expect. During the emotional climax of the play, we are rendered mere spectators watching her painful catharsis — the immersive aspect of the performance disappearing entirely. Whilst Varshini delivers a powerful performance overall, it might have been worth exploring a multiplicity of narratives around what ultimately seemed like an under-utilised set. Neither the play’s larger ideological framework nor the metaphor of the cardboard kitchen is thoroughly fleshed out during the performance, which is a shame for such a promising premise.
What ties this cardboard kitchen, fairytales, and personal tragedy together is a line in the play that describes building a cardboard kitchen as akin to “building a home that’s never meant to be lived in”. Essentially, the show is a whirlwind of emotion and drama, and lacks the ideological gravitas it needs to land its message. The Cardboard Kitchen Project is nevertheless an enjoyable and admirable piece of theatre that deserves credit for its intent to bridge a gap in London’s fringe theatre circuit, and for its intercultural appeal. Seeing so much of myself in a character on a stage in London is such a pleasant shock. It only serves to highlight the paucity of roles, on stage or otherwise, that fairly represents us as Southeast Asian diasporas.
The Cardboard Kitchen Project by FK Co-Lab ran from 19-20 August 2019 at London’s Lion & Unicorn Theatre as part of Camden Fringe 2019. More info here.