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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
ROOTS
at the Donmar Warehouse

FREETHINKERS
By JOHN NATHAN

  Linda Bassett and Jessica Raine/ Ph: Stephen Cummiskey

Terence Rattigan – that once-neglected, now oft-revived master of middle-class drama – wrote to the young Arnold Wesker – also once-neglected, also much revived – to tell the budding dramatist that he had the makings of an “Ibsen class” playwright.

Even Wesker's fans might think that an exaggeration of Wesker's talents. But recent revivals of Chicken Soup with Barley at the Royal court, The Kitchen at the National and now this delicately detailed production by director James Macdonald of Roots (the third play in the Wesker trilogy that starts with Chicken Soup) have all done a fair job in making the case.

Wesker's Ibsen-like heroine is Beatie Bryant, the young girl from rural Norfolk whose boyfriend is a self-styled London intellectual. Beatie has returned to the family home full of his opinions, ideas and quotes, all of which she mercilessly directs at her family of farmers to illustrate to them how London and her boyfriend have expanded her mind. Their minds can be expand too if only they would listen to her.

How long the Bryants and their spouses will allow Beatie to make them feel inferior forms much of the tension in this slow-moving three-acter (divided with two short intervals). But it's the depiction of 1950s life in rural Norfolk that absorbs as much as anything here – the wood stoves for heat, the oil lamps for light – and when the action moves from Beatie's sister's cramped cottage to their parents' place (the scale of the homes are illustrated by Hildegard Bechtler's design with the use of huge timber beam that traverses the stage) there is at least electricity to keep the gloom at bay. Although even here taking a bath means carrying a zinc tub into the kitchen and filling it with pales of water.

It's here that Linda Bassett as Beatie's mother delivers one of the performances of the year. She may know nothing about art, socialism or classical music, but as she goes about her domestic duties she shows deep reserves of good-humoured tolerance every time her daughter displays contempt for her mother's ignorance. At least, up to a point. 

There is plenty more exquisite acting here. Michael Jibson as Beatie's brother-in-law is pitch perfect as a dog-tired labourer for whom life is fleetingly enjoyed between bouts of grinding hard work. But enjoyed it is, though not on the highfaluting terms that Beatie insists everyone should aspire to.

Jessica Raine plays her to the hilt, capturing Beatie's deep passion for her boyfriend's ideas, the vulnerability when it emerges that she hardly understands them herself, and also the transformation of someone who ultimately learns to think for herself instead of reciting the notions of someone else.

When that moment comes – during which Beatie berates the working classes for settling for low-rate culture – there is, it's true, a power that brings to mind Ibsen and his heroines. Wesker's writing is not as well plotted, but in keeping everyone waiting for the boyfriend's arrival, it's not too shabby on that score either. And with this fine production, there is something powerfully Ibsen-esque about this woman as she emerges as an independent thinker.

 


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