Chips With Everything at National Theatre, Lyttelton
Britain's national service was consigned to the annals of history in 1960. Arnold Wesker's Chips with Everything attempts to resurrect the experience but, sadly, it remains trapped in its own time capsule. The dominant theme of class struggle which, according to Wesker, was rife in the 1950s seems irrelevant today - or certainly far less pronounced.
The play, based on Wesker's own national service experience, portrays a group of young, working class conscripts during their eight weeks of “square-bashing”, ie basic training. “Slumming” with the “salt of the earth” conscripts is upper class Pip, excellently brought to life by Rupert Penry-Jones (with a name like that it's a good guess his cut-glass accent's not put on), who is fascinated by his peers inclination to breed babies and eat “chips with everything”. Pip wants to stay with his new-found friends but the officers, all born of his own class, are determined to bring him back into their fold. Fraternisation between classes is a crime worse than murder in Wesker's 1950s world.
With the exception of Pip, however, Wesker's upper class twits are just that - twits caricatured beyond belief. They don't sound real or act real and are, frankly, beyond belief with their juvenile taunting of the wayward Pip. What's more, they appear to be the only ones involved in this class struggle. The twits continually vent their hatred of the working class but the conscripts don't take much notice. They readily (too readily in fact) accept Pip to their ranks and just get on with learning their drills.
Wesker's account of the brutality of the experience is similarly weak. During the first act, it's completely non-existent. The hard-nosed corporal turns out to have a heart of gold and a talent with a mouth-organ; and the conscripts seem to spend most of their time in the barracks pleasantly lounging around, gabbing and philosophising. The menace does increase in the second act as pressure on Pip mounts and hapless conscript Smiler (Julian Kerridge) is terrorised for his incompetence. Still, the action never gathers any real steam and the ‘climax is uninspiring.
Considering the weakness of the material, director Howard Davies manages a respectable production. He elicits some great ensemble acting from the conscripts (Eddie Marsans knowing fool Chas in particular) and orchestrates some funny scenes on the drill field and during the midnight raid. Rob Howell s dark, cage-like set imposes a threatening claustrophobia which also helps to compensate for the failings of the script.
Chips with Everything hasn't been staged in London since its premiere at the Royal Court in 1962. Despite the National's best efforts, I wouldn't recommend a second revival.
Terri Paddock, September 1997