It’s a good time for tours of iconic left-wing plays of half a century ago. The Northern Stage tour of the late Alan Plater’s magnificent piece of agit prop, Close the Coalhouse Door, will soon reach Yorkshire and this week Arnold Wesker’s 1959 classic, Roots, is playing Hull Truck Theatre.
The Plater play will inevitably appear dated (there was a mining industry when it was written), but Roots has dated in a subtler, more insidious way that makes it seem almost patronising. Beatie Bryant returns to her Norfolk home on a visit full of the socialist aesthetic of her London Jewish boyfriend, Ronnie Kahn. She seizes every opportunity to lecture her family on the need for self-improvement and independence of thought, denounce popular culture, leap on a chair to lecture in the manner of Ronnie and emphasise the social gulf between him and them. Meanwhile her family remains mired in stultifying routine, their most interesting observations the regular passing of a vehicle or the re-telling of a tale of illness. Pretty much everything is second-hand, including Beatie’s quotations from Ronnie, until his note cancelling his promised visit frees her tongue and her mind.
Roots is an important play, almost the originator of “kitchen sink” drama, and makes a brave attempt to convey the rhythms of Norfolk life. I find a problem lies with the characters of Beatie and the non-appearing Ronnie: are they meant to be so tiresome? If so, Wesker deserves high praise for his detachment for they are based on himself and his wife! But I can’t help thinking that, though he is frank about their failings, Wesker admires this unending didacticism. At times the play seems like a dramatisation of Richard Hoggart’s Uses of Literacy which came out only two years before Roots was written.
Andrew Breakwell’s production uses mostly regulars from Colchester’s Mercury Theatre where the tour began and is distinguished by a series of selfless undemonstrative performances from the Norfolk characters, notably Linda Broughton and Roger Delves-Broughton as Beatie’s parents and Gina Isaac as her sister. Charmian Hoare as dialect coach appears to me to have worked wonders with the problematic Norfolk accent. Natasha Rickman ticks all the boxes as Beatie, but it is difficult to visualise this as a part that Joan Plowright declared she would play anywhere. Rickman is intelligent, sympathetic and technically adept, but there is no magic – I wonder if Beatie can possess magic for a 21st century audience. Jane Linz Roberts’ designs are attractively authentic, but seem to have been planned for a differently shaped stage.