Tag Archives: Arnold Wesker

“Roots” at the Donmar Warehouse

As you might expect, there is a kitchen sink in Arnold Wesker’s 1958 work Roots. But, for all the washing up, the play really revolves around cooking. It starts with some liver, followed by ice cream, as Beatie comes home to her Norfolk village for a holiday. Jessica Raine instantly establishes Beatie – and her own acting skills – as something exceptional. Inspired by the socialist ideals she has been exposed to from her activist fiance Ronnie, she’s a “whirlwind” to her family. Insisting that they start to think and talk like her, she is a harsh, albeit endearing judge.

Next Beatie makes a cake. It’s Ronnie’s recipe. Her formidable mother is busy cooking something else while being lectured to and made to listen to classical music. The preparations are for Ronnie’s visit, an encounter that Beatie is justifiably anxious about. Linda Bassett shines in the role of Mrs Bryant, bringing much humour to the play and almost threatening to make the focus two women rather one (probably not Wesker’s intention), so fine is her performance.

By the final scene, there has been more food (and a bath in between), including a family feast with a trifle to take seriously, and all are assembled for Ronnie’s arrival. There’s a sense we have over indulged. Director James Macdonald’s production is meticulous and, with the help of designer Hildegard Bechtler, the detail approaches fetishism. The observation of rural working-class life is slow but captivating, and concentrated performances from the large ensemble that make up Beatie’s family are similarly precise and of the highest quality.

As well as being slightly bloated, Wesker’s examination of socialist ideas is a little past its sell-by date. Thankfully, there is also Beatie’s journey of self-discovery, and this is all together more satisfying. Raine’s depiction of Beatie’s development is thorough and gratifying, giving her the passion for life that Wesker writes so well about. As she gets down from Ronnie’s soapbox, admittedly on to one of her own, you start to really listen to her, and one leaves feeling that the end is her delicious new beginning.

Until 30 November 2013


Photo by Stephen Cummiskey

Written 10 October 2013 for The London Magazine

“The Kitchen” at the National Theatre

Bijan Sheibani’s spirited revival of Arnold Wesker’s The Kitchen provides audiences with an insight into 1950s catering and post-war Britain. The acting is commendable, the production values high – but it is difficult to recommend going to see it.

The 30-strong cast perform impeccably. They convince us that The Kitchen is a working environment, overflowing with rows and romances, consuming their lives and making them fight to retain their individuality. Tom Brooke does especially well as the German chef Peter and becomes the focus of the plays finale. Along the way, Samuel Roukin impresses and Rory Keenan’s comedy skills stand out.

The mechanics behind running a massive restaurant are brought to life by Sheibani quite remarkably. Giles Cadle’s set echoes the mass of the Olivier Theatre, with space for the impression of chaos and enough cookers to make you worry about the National’s gas bill. With a touch of fantasy (cue flying waitresses) the kitchen is presented as another world.

But the kitchen isn’t another world. The first act serves as an extended entrée to deeper concerns about the place of work in our lives, using the “united nations” of kitchen staff to look at life after the war – and dreams of improvement that began when the fighting stopped.

Much humour comes from the dated nature of what’s on the menu – the characters dream of chicken Kiev as an adventurous dish – but the nostalgic appeal of The Kitchen mixes uncomfortably with its politics. The first act isn’t meaty enough to make us care about the characters, while in the second the politics are too dated to engage with.

The 1950s are in vogue along the South Bank and celebrating Arnold Wesker makes sense, but The Kitchen seems so much of its own time that reviving it, no matter how thoughtfully, fails to whet the appetite.

Until 9 November 2011


Photo by Marc Brenner

Written 9 September for The London Magazine

“Chicken Soup with Barley” at the Royal Court Theatre

First performed at the Royal Court in 1958, Arnold Wesker’s Chicken Soup with Barley is the story of Sarah Kahn, a dedicated East End communist, and her struggle against capitalism. Director Dominic Cooke’s revival of this state-of-the-nation period piece does justice to Wesker’s ability to unite the political with the personal.

The play opens on the day of the Battle of Cable Street, on 4 October 1936, and the characters’ enthusiasm for rioting seems strangely quaint. When Sarah reaches for the rolling pin it gets a laugh and handing a Communist flag to her husband, telling him to “do something useful,” takes on a delicious irony.

Chicken Soup with Barley is a convincing family drama. Sarah’s husband Harry’s lack of political involvement is only the start of their marital problems. In these roles, Samantha Spiro and Danny Webb give tremendous performances. As the story spans three decades, the actors have plenty of opportunity to show off their technical prowess (Spiro has done this before – she seems capable of playing any age). But what really impresses is the close emotional bond one can sense, despite their cruelty to one another.

The arguments between the couple, including the fight for a socialist future, take their toll on their children. Here are two fine professional debuts, with Jenna Augen as Ada establishing her character’s complexity with impressive speed, and Tom Rosenthal as Ronnie providing a moving and astute performance.

Hindsight might make rebellion against their mother’s ideas seem predictable, but it is Cooke’s masterstroke to open up this division and make it so emotional. In a production that often feels rushed, time is taken to remind us of Ada’s absence, while Ronnie’s rejection of the ‘Party’ has apathy at its core. And that makes the themes in Chicken Soup with Barley seem relevant today. Londoners still protest, but our riots are reactionary not revolutionary. Fortunately for Cooke, the heart of Wesker’s political comment is engagement and a repeated desire to debate and act that becomes not just compelling drama but an important message that is clear and loud.

Until 16 July 2011


Photo by  Johan Persson

Written 13 June 2011 for The London Magazine