The last time Stockard Channing appeared in a full season on the London stage, she was a wealthy Manhattan liberal married to an art dealer on Fifth Avenue in John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation. She returns as the lower middle-class, mean-minded Bessie Berger in Clifford Odets’ wonderful 1935 comedy of despair and resolution in the Bronx.
In between, of course, Channing has become a household face as the President’s wife in TV’s The West Wing, but it is major treat in Michael Attenborough’s beautifully cast and joyously well acted ensemble production of Awake and Sing! to appreciate once more her sly, natural delivery of knock-out lines and her feline, graceful stage presence and command.
The Almeida is awash with lines of clothes to convey the height and claustrophobia of the Berger tenement apartment, designed by Tim Shortall, where Bessie is scheming to keep her son, Ralph (Ben Turner) from seeing an “unsuitable” girl, and diverting her pregnant daughter Hennie (the translucent Jodie Whittaker, Peter O’Toole’s glorious co-star in Venus) into a loveless liaison with an intense, no-hoper Russian Jewish immigrant (John Lloyd Fillingham).
While her defeated husband Myron (Paul Jesson) fiddles about amiably in the background – at one point, the seraphic Jesson wonders why he bothered to come into the room at all – the urgency of street life in the Depression intrudes with Nigel Lindsay’s ebullient one-legged war veteran Moe Axelrod, who wears Harry the Horse-style pinstripes and carries a torch for Hennie, and with Bessie’s brother Morty (Trevor Cooper) who is just about surviving in the garment trade.
The wise guy named Moe says he’s got a yen for Hennie – “and I don’t mean a Chiney coin”. The text retains its punch and swagger right through. Even more so than in a sedate, poetic production at Hampstead Theatre many years ago (Patience Collier played Bessie), Attenborough brings the whole of the playwright’s music to life; no need to ask, “Odets, where is thy sting?”
The optimism of radical change – how hollow it sounds now – resides in Ben’s devotion to his old grandfather’s advice to “take the world in two hands and make it like new”. How moving it is to see that fine Irish actor John Rogan – now paralysed and confined to a wheelchair after a terrible accident in which he fell down a Tube escalator – gazing dewy-eyed into the distance, his head full of the soaring tenor sounds of Caruso.
When Bessie destroys those recordings in a spiteful rage (lent special significance on press night, held the day that Pavarotti died), you experience the full poisonous nay-saying of domestic “respectability” honed by years of deprivation, narrowing horizons and despondency. But as in Chekhov, the humanity of failing makes for resonant theatrical success … a marvellous evening.