Review: Chicken Soup with Barley, Royal Court

“If you don’t care, you’ll die”

A playwright who hasn’t received much attention in years of late, Arnold Wesker finds two of his plays about to receive major revivals in London: Chicken Soup with Barley here at the Royal Court, where it first played in 1958 and The Kitchen will open later this year at the National Theatre. Chicken Soup… follows the disintegration of an East End Jewish family over a twenty year period but simultaneously the collapse of the Communist ideals that they and their friends espouse, starting with the Cable Street Riots in 1936 and revisiting them just after the war has finished and again in 1956 and the beginnings of the Hungarian Revolution.

At the heart of the play and barely off the stage, Samantha Spiro is never less than sparkling as Sarah, at once the Jewish mother forever making cups of tea and sandwiches for her brood as they rally round her, singing songs, making speeches and dreaming of a bright future, and also this political stalwart fiercely committed to her Socialist ideals even as others peel away from her magnetic influence and the ideal world they dreamed of crumbles away. It is her life that epitomises the Socialist dream and her passionate defence of the way she has lived her life, although coming too late in the play, is a stunning moment which ends the play powerfully. As her feckless husband, Danny Webb gives an equally affecting performance of a man who feels he has failed at life and is constantly reminded of the fact by his nagging wife and then later his children: he way he retreats into himself as illness then kicks in is often just too hard to watch.

The decision to cast two debutants as their children – Jenna Augen and Tom Rosenthal – is an interesting one that hasn’t quite paid off yet. The play requires huge leaps between the decades it portrays and though both displayed the requisite youthful enthusiasm while still in the family fold, neither really captured the depth of the disillusionment that followed, although saddled with lengthy speeches and difficult emotional posturing which didn’t help and it may well be that their performances mature as the run progresses – a hard first ask though. Around them, there’s a flurry of small supporting performances: Alexis Zegerman’s sharp sister/aunt, Steve Furst’s kindly Hymie and Harry Peacock’s blustering Monty being the best, all adding a little much-needed levity and variation to the bleak tone.

Structurally, the play’s division into 3 acts – although Dominic Cooke has stuck with just the one interval, compressing II and III together – does give the play the rather old-fashioned feel of a period piece. It does allow for one of those scene changes that the Royal Court are famous for, Ultz’s opening cramped attic apartment complete with staircase down into the depths of the stage is transformed into the much more elegant living space of later years to impressive effect. But crucially the structure also limits the way the drama plays out. Too much time is spent on the domestic battles especially in the central act and so the highly revelatory moments between mother and son come too late in the play.

This is the type of “state-of-the-nation play” (I quote the promotional blurb) that is beloved of many of our theatrical critics and I am pretty sure there is a drinking game to be had in the number of times that that quote and “timely revival” will be used in the reviews that appear in the next few days. And I suspect it will go down well, not least because it seems to be Wesker’s time, but also because there is skill in the way in which the political and the personal are elided, the larger themes played out in the smaller sphere. But as with Butley, I struggled with the punishingly bleak tone, the crushing family dynamics and in the end, misery begat misery: I’ve always preferred chicken noodle soup to be honest.

Lastly, there’s something intriguing about the revival of neglected playwrights and the way in which people seek to explain the reasons for it that is lent an extra potency by the fact that Wesker is still alive. Rattigan’s reassessment has been a while in the making though coming to a head in this, his centenary year, but sadly he is not around to see it or to pass comment. Wesker is though, and a rather fawning interview in The Jewish Chronicle, offers a highly illuminating account into why he feels his work has not been sufficiently appreciated – as he sees it – which doesn’t cast him in the best light and comes close to petulance.

He blames casual anti-Semitism – ‘is it cos I is Jewish’ – and the arrogance of much of the theatrical establishment which moved on to other dramatists without acknowledging that it was a similar change in attitude that brought his work to prominence in the first place (and consigning Rattigan and his ilk to years of neglect) as unaware of it he might have been at the time. Indeed the interview casts a rosy glow over the correspondence between the two men as Rattigan paid huge compliments to Wesker’s writing and Wesker wistfully says he wishes he had kept copies of the replies he sent (which as Boycotting Trends pointed out is interesting considering Michael Darlow’s Rattigan biography records Wesker’s response as being contemptuous and along the lines of ‘Rattigan would be better employed writing better plays himself’)

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes (with interval)
Playtext cost: £3
Booking until 9th July

2 Replies to “Review: Chicken Soup with Barley, Royal Court”

  1. I'd be careful about picking a fight with Mr Wesker, he can be very prickly as you can see! Not sure how blog-literate he is though 😉

    Interesting view on the show, I'm booked to see it next week but have no expectations, aside from an instant need to disagree with Billington's 5 stars!

  2. Ha! I don't how blog-literate he is, though debate would be fun.

    I do feel like I knew Billington would give the play 5 stars from the moment I read his essay on it. And indeed, the review feels so much more premised on the play rather than this particular production, and so based on his dramatic preferences more than anything.

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