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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
CHICKEN SOUP WITH BARLEY
at Royal Court Theatre

LOSS OF IDEALISM
By JOHN NATHAN

  Ilan Goodman, Joel Gillman, Samantha Spiro and Harry Peacock/ Ph: Johan Persson

Soon after John Osborne began the Royal Court’s “kitchen sink” revolution with Look Back in Anger, Arnold Wesker cooked up Chicken Soup with Barley (1958), the first of three autobiographical plays that would later become known as the Wesker trilogy. 
 
British theatregoers have had few chances to see Wesker’s work since the height of his successes in the 1960s – much to the playwright’s seething resentment. But now, in a strangely timed revival, Wesker’s play triumphantly returns to the stage where it was last seen more than 50 years ago.
 
Why strangely timed? Well, just when the Court’s artistic director Dominic Cooke has finally embedded the theatre’s switch from the working-class territory that made its reputation to plays populated by middle classes, he revives a work that is the epitome of the Court's working-class canon. 
 
Spanning 20 years, Chicken Soup begins in 1936. The Kahn family, led by Wesker's matriarch Sarah(Samantha Spiro) (he based the character on his mother), is one of the many Jewish families who at that time were devoted to communism, living in London’s East End and on October 4, 1936, prepared to confront a fascist march through their neighbourhood. 
 
By 1956 the play and the Khans have moved to a council flat, Sarah’s feckless husband Harry (Danny Webb) is a shambling stroke victim, Russia has invaded Hungary, and everyone is disillusioned with socialism except the stalwart Sarah. An ideology has all but collapsed, a family has almost disintegrated. 
 
Wesker might easily be accused of writing unsubtly about big issues. There are grand speeches about idealism followed by grand speeches about the loss of idealism, the most telling of which are delivered by Sarah’s grown-up children Cissie (Alexis Zegerman) and Ronnie (Tom Rosenthal), who much to Sarah's disgust have thrown in the political towel. 
 
But what saves the play from being a declamatory polemic about the loss of idealism is that Wesker is ultimately interested in people more than politics. Not that communism is let off the hook. When Sarah’s disillusioned son Ronnie – a name whose formal version is an anagram of the author’s – berates his mother for ignoring Soviet crimes, he condemns an ideology whose massacres and invasions betrayed those, such as the Khans, who fought hardest for its cause. 
 
As Sarah, a terrifically on-form Samantha Spiro refuses to let the character's Jewish mother mannerisms – the fussing, the shrugging, the kvetching – define her performance. Though nor does she forsake them. They are instead simply integral to a woman whose instinct is to care as much about humanity as she does her family. And Spiro gets particularly good support from Rosenthal as Sarah's loquacious son Ronnie, a performance that serves as an uncanny portrait of the author as a young man. 
 
Cooke’s production and the interiors by designer Ultz, enshrine the Khan's family life in decaying then dour living rooms and a sense of inexorable decline. Well, this is pre- and post-war East End remember, and you don’t get much more dour than that. 
 
But that first act, during which the Kahns argue, eat and prepare for the coming fight as their comrades' anti-fascist cries of “They shall not pass” drift up through the window, is so stirring it drives the entire play like rocket fuel. 
 


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