Chicken Soup With Barley attempts to be both a political play and a Jewish family drama in a similar style to that later adopted by Mike Leigh. However, I felt that Arnold Wesker fell between two stools and didn't fully succeed in either form. The best scene by far was in the opening act set against the Cable Street riots when the Kahn's extended family had a clear enemy to fight against. Although the hostility but mutual reliance between Sarah and Harry is convincingly conveyed the rest of the play mainly consists of characters popping up to try and give some political context including rather half-hearted references to the realities of Stalin's communist utopia. Although superbly played by Samantha Spiro Sarah was a rather implausible socialist firebrand, apparently uninformed about world events but fighting against authority because that seemed the right thing to do. Wesker now appears to be long outdated, particularly when compared to some of the recent political dramas at the Royal Court. - David Baxter
01 Jul 11
Why do we get so many revivals by playwrights like Chekhov and Pinter and hardly ever see plays by British 20th century playwrights like Arnold Wesker?
This excellent 1958 play tells the story of an East End Jewish family over 20 years, cleverly bookended by the fascist march at Cable Street in 1936 (and the communist reaction) and the communist repression in Hungary (after the defeat of fascism in the second world war). The great success of the play is that the domestic sits comfortably with the history; indeed they each add something to the other – the perspective of the times in which they live for the family’s story and placing a family into history to bring it alive. The picture it manages to paint in six surprisingly short scenes is both vivid and epic.
Samantha Spiro’s Sarah is the family’s anchor and her performance is outstanding. I’ve mostly seen her in comedy and musicals before, so its great to see her as capable at drama (her beaming smiles at the curtain call reminded me of Clare Higgins). Danny Webb is also superb as the less sympathetic character of Harry, making an extraordinary journey from politically passionate but fundamentally lazy husband to a sad disabled incontinent old man. Jenna Augen and Tom Rosenthal make auspicious professional debuts as daughter and son Ada and Ronnie, as does Joel Gillman as young political activist Dave.
Dominic Cook gives the play the impeccable attention to detail we’ve come to expect after Now or Later and Clybourne Park and Ultz’ sets are brilliantly evocative. I can’t wait to see The Kitchen at the NT later in the year, but will someone please revive the other two parts of the trilogy that this forms the first part of please!
Another very satisfying evening at the Royal Court. - Gareth James
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