The Café is a site-specific performance, performed in the Coffee Works Project in Angel, which tells the all-too familiar story of austerity through a day in the life of a struggling café and its disgruntled employees. Written by Ben Aitken, who describes himself as a playwright of “no reputation whatsoever”, the play centres on the relationship between tight-fisted café owner Marcus, played by Paul Lincoln, and Joe, (Jolyon Westhorpe) the young, idealistic waiter bent on standing up for workers’ rights to tips and free lunches in the face of Marcus’s cost-cutting reforms.
The tension between these two mounts with the appearance of Rose, potential new employee and love interest for Joe. The chemistry between the sulky Westhorpe and Sophie Dickson as Rose is unconvincing, as is the likelihood that her character, an Oxford graduate and boarding-school educated “daughter of dentists”, would end up working in this neighbourhood café. There are, though, some great lines, not least Joe’s explanation of “what Marx said about cake” which neatly explains Marxist theory through the crumbs of the proletariat and the icing which they must struggle to seize for themselves.
What Aitken excels at in The Café, though, is drawing authentic characters which seem wonderfully real. There’s Naz, the Turkish chef with a dodgy accent and match-making talent; John, the quiet guy whose whole world is his four-year old daughter; and Jimmy, the Polish odd-jobs-man who reads nursery rhymes to improve his English. Each has a story and is allotted a brief window to speak, but it would strengthen and clarify the play if more time were given to letting these characters develop. The best elements of this performance are the social observations Aitken slips in and how the characters relate to each other.
In general, the venue works well, creating a very natural backdrop to the performance, but one issue is that the cramped nature of the audience space doesn’t leave much wriggle room. Having said that, the play’s relatively short length means this isn’t too much of a problem, and also gives just the right amount of time to do justice to the plot and characters. The ending is a little unclear and disappointing, with the narrative seeming to lose momentum and simply tail off, although one might construe this as a reflection on the uncertainty of these economically turbulent times and the hardships facing small businesses. The Café could certainly benefit from some adjustments to the script and giving more airtime to the fantastic characters Aitken has created, but as it is it makes for an entertaining evening.
The Café is at the Coffee Works Project on Islington High Street until 6 April. For more information please visit the Old Red Lion Theatre website.