We’ve probably all done it in the first flush of love – repeated the pronouncements of that so very special new person ad nauseam to thoroughly uncomprehending and ultimately completely bored family and friends. So Beatie’s mantra of “Ronnie says …” through the first two acts of Arnold Wesker’s Roots strikes a universal chord.
Chord is an appropriate word in this particular context, for there’s a harmonic arch to the play which Andrew Breakwell’s production draws out and which is emphasised by Pat Whymark’s musical direction. Jane Linz Roberts presents us with a thrust-stage set for the two cottages in which the farm-labouring Beales and Bryant families live.
This suggests, through its combination of non-mod con furnishings and bleak landscapes projected behind the cruck framework, both the 1950s reality and the universal timelessness inherent in both the land and its people. Dialect coach Charmian Hoare has emphasised this rural Norfolk in the way the Beales and the Bryants speak. Regional accents are notoriously tricky to get right – I think these could best be defined as generic East Anglian.
Any production of Roots depends on how much we in the audience – whose own lives are probably quite remote from those of the characters on stage – can emphasise with them. Above all, it depends on Beatie herself, the girl who has been to London, acquired new interests and aspirations, set up with a boy-friend there (whose home background, education and aspirations are all so different from hers) and now waits to introduce him to her family.
Natasha Rickman doesn’t disappoint. You watch her develop from a slightly prickly ventriloquist’s dummy as she arrives at her sister’s house into a fully-fleshed human being able to channel rejection into something self-constructive rather than destructive as she harangues the assembled family – all scrubbed up, slicked down and in their Sunday best – and so awkward as they perch in the seldom-used parlour.
It’s a performance of great sensitivity, even maturity, from a young actress just at the start of her career. Complementing it is Linda Broughton’s Mrs Bryant, for whom dance-music on the wireless provides the only lift to a life of domestic drudgery and financial uncertainty. The scene where she suddenly stumbles onto Beatie’s wavelength through the latter’s interpretation of the L’Arlesienne suite is beautifully judged. So is the moment in the last act when her patience with her children snaps. And do listen for the click of her unaccustomed heeled shoes; they provide an obbligato to her words, and her mood.
Jenny, Beatie’s sister with a marriage trembling on the satisfactory is played by Gina Isaac. You can understand why Jimmy (Tim Treslove) wanted her as a wife, for all that she was carrying someone else’s child. Beatie’s father, so miserly with both money and affection (Roger Delves-Broughton), her prim sister-in-law (Ella Vale), her husband (Thomas Richardson) and the sad, drunk derelict (Adrian Stokes) all have their moments.
But the play ultimately belongs to Beatie and her mother. Rickman and Broughton offer it to us with commitment and conviction. We in the audience accept the gift, with interest.