What a creaky vessel this venerable play now seems. The first part of Arnold Wesker’s Trilogy, written in 1958 (it was followed by Roots and I’m Talking About Jerusalem) Chicken Soup with Barley draws on the writer’s own experience of growing up in a noisy, politically committed Jewish family before and after the Second World War.
There are three acts, spanning the decades from 1936 to 1956, with nine or ten-year intervals between them. The first, set on the day of the Battle of Cable Street when Mosley’s Blackshirts faced Jews and socialists in the East End, provides an introduction to the Kahn family: Sarah the long-suffering mother, Harry her feckless husband, teenage idealist Ada, her young brother Ronnie and the left-wing friends who regard their home as a rallying point.
In this production, which began life at Nottingham Playhouse, director Giles Croft cannily uses newsreel sound-track to pinpoint the historical moment at the beginning of each act. The second opens to the sound of the post-war Labour victory. The third ends at the time of the Hungarian Revolution. The parents’ bickering, the father’s weakness and the children’s rites of passage are all played out in terms of political conviction and against the background of world events.
Shona Morris as Sarah copes well with the difficult task of combining stereotypical tea-making Jewish mother with political firebrand. Wesker’s women wipe the floor with their men. Even Ronnie, a cook with ambitions to write - and clearly a Wesker self-portrait (played by a fervent Sam Talbot) - fears that he is more like his passive father than his passionate mother. Simon Schatzberger’s shambling Harry becomes a tragic, dependent figure while Rachel Edwards makes the most of her opportunities as Ada both while announcing her plan to escape to a simple life in the country and as a shopkeeper’s wife with limited horizons.
The structure of Chicken Soup with Barley with the requirement of two intervals and tedious resetting between scenes, as well as longeurs including a complete card game in Act III, make it a period piece. But we would be ill-advised to dismiss this humane play, with its articulate, politicised working-class characters, as dated too readily. The expression of public concerns through private experience is as valuable as ever.