WhatsOnStage Logo
Review Round-Ups

Review Round-up: Court Revives Wesker's Soup

WhatsOnStage logo
Arnold Wesker’s semi-autobiographical state-of-the-nation play Chicken Soup with Barley opened this week (7 June, previews from 3 June 2011) at the Royal Court.

Originally staged at the theatre in 1958, the current revival is directed by the Court's artistic director Domenic Cooke and stars Samantha Spiro as the feisty political matriarch. Chicken Soup with Barley to 9 July 2011 at the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs.

A landmark play in the history of post-war British theatre, Chicken Soup with Barley is a political drama based upon Wesker's own experiences of growing up in a Jewish family in the East End of London.

The Kahn family is put to the test in the anti-fascist riots of the 1930s, and the play spans three decades documenting the effects of post-war social issues. History begins to take its toll as the mother's ideals and resilience challenge a father's weakness.

The play also stars Tom Rosenthal, Danny Webb, Harry Peacock, Alexis Zegerman, Ilan Goodman,Jenna Augen and Steve Furst, with design by Ultz, lighting by Charles Balfour, sound by Gareth Fry and music by Gary Yershon.

Were the critics partial to Wesker's Chicken Soup?

Michael Coveney

Dominic Cooke’s frantically fast-paced Chicken Soup production cuts corners and isn’t quite right; the character outlines are not always filled in enough by the actors. Samantha Spiro’s fiery but too rigidly focused central performance is spoilt by a bad wig. But to see this play on the stage where it made Wesker’s name --and with a ceiling (you rarely see ceilings in sets these days) in Ultz’s hyper-realist design of the Whitechapel attic flat, then the Hackney council accommodation -- over fifty years ago, is intensely moving … As people’s lives are trimmed with pragmatism and domestic duty, the hearth is stoked by Spiro’s blazing Sarah Kahn, a lifelong Communist Party member who refuses to face the disillusions of her own budding writer son, Ronnie, whom debutant Tom Rosenthal plays with great comic energy and accumulating hurt. Meanwhile, Harry (Danny Webb), Sarah’s husband, goes from sly indolence to gibbering immobility after a couple of strokes and endless (he says; we agree) nagging. Their big row is quite uncomfortably spectacular. Ronnie’s sister, Ada (Jenny Augen) takes socialism to the fens in Cambridge, while Aunt Cissie (a really wonderful, zesty performance by Alexis Zegerman) keeps up the good work with the trades unions, and registers the changing climate. In a theatre that Dominic Cooke has controversially, and imaginatively, turned into a haven for middle-class, sometimes very good, double-edged plays, the ironic use of ‘The Internazionale’ on the soundtrack and the Russian revolutionary imagery on the poster, is brilliantly undone by Sarah’s last great speech in defence of socialism. No-one’s spoken in our theatre like this for years!”

Michael Billington

“One of Wesker's many achievements is to put on stage different forms of socialism: if Sarah's is instinctive, her son Ronnie's is romantic and that of her union-loving sister-in-law pragmatic. But Wesker, at his best, is also capable of showing human relationships tested to breaking-point ... It is precisely because Wesker can understand both sides of the argument that the scene radiates such power. Everything about Dominic Cooke's flawless production and Ultz's design, down to the Bakelite radio and the mahogany mantelpiece clock, looks right. Even if Samantha Spiro has to don a wig to convey Sarah's growing age, she captures perfectly her indomitable spirit and equation of socialism with love and food. Danny Webb is also quite stunning as her husband: as he sits hunched in his chair seeking to withstand Sarah's verbal assault, he seems to shrink before our eyes. With strong support from Tom Rosenthal as the idealistic Ronnie and Harry Peacock as a young militant turned Manchester shopkeeper, this is a production that should encourage a whole new generation to discover the often neglected Wesker.”

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

“There are two stunning performances: from Samantha Spiro, whose Sarah is a nugget of vitality and a model of resilience, and from Danny Webb as her feckless husband Harry, who shrivels unbearably as a result of two strokes. Among the support, the standout is Harry Peacock as a firebrand whose spirit is snuffed out by prosperity. The play itself has a deep core of humanity. Its title is a reference to a memorable, evocative flavour that remains after everything else has gone - a reminder of the warm, enduring nourishment afforded by friendships ... This feels didactic, and his characters can appear too neatly illustrative of different strands of ideology. In the Fifties, Wesker was applauded for bringing to the stage a stratum of working-class experience that was alien to most theatregoers. Today, the substance of this family chronicle seems less novel, but it's a lot more than just a dusty period piece, and Cooke's interpretation, with an affectionately detailed design by Ultz, is meticulous and impressive.”

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

“It is not often that the Royal Court revives its past successes, but I suspect Dominic Cooke, who directs this beautifully judged and often deeply moving production, felt it was time to bring one of the Royal Court’s early heroes in from the cold. In this he has succeeded triumphantly … This is a play that genuinely combines the personal and the political – though sometimes clumsily, with occasional terrible lines ... There is nothing sentimental about Wesker’s portrait of the Kahn family that he based at least partly on his own … Nor is there any sentimentality in the portrait of Sarah’s marriage ... Especially when Cooke, in a virtuosic touch, has the actor playing the young man sitting in the chair previously occupied by his broken dad. Samantha Spiro is superb as Sarah, turning what might seem an archetypal Jewish character into a beautifully rounded individual, a woman of warmth, sympathy and passion who sometimes succumbs to fury and despair. Danny Webb is harrowing as the disintegrating father who knows just how third-rate he is, and Tom Rosenthal is deeply moving as the son whose socialist dreams turn sour.”

Sarah Hemming
Financial Times

"The world has changed so much since Arnold Wesker’s play was staged at this theatre in 1958 that hindsight lends it even more poignancy than it might have had then. And though it is now a period piece in more ways than one– it is pretty stiff in places and the political points often elbow their way into conversation– it has a deep vein of humanity running through it. Dominic Cooke’s authentic revival, on meticulous sets by theatre designer Ultz, draws this out and is driven by some tremendous performances … Samantha Spiro is outstanding as Sarah, the embattled and battling mother at the heart of the play. She’s funny, busy, passionate – a fighter, who embraces the cause from her kitchen, pausing to deliberate between a meat-tenderizer and a rolling pin as she heads out to take on the fascists, and who is exasperated by her apathetic husband, Harry. She is matched by a superb Danny Webb as Harry, who withers before our eyes as two strokes take their toll. Seen now, the dated aspects of the play certainly emerge, but so, too, do the timeless ones. Cooke’s beautifully judged production and Spiro’s moving performance leave us with Sarah’s words ringing in our ears: 'You’ve got to care or you’ll die'.”

Paul Taylor

Dominic Cooke's electric and intensely touching revival of Chicken Soup with Barley... has the distinction of being one of the very few plays in English that offers an empathetic treatment of a communist family ... Beautifully capturing the play's moving ambivalence (if Wesker's head is with Ronnie, his heart is with Sarah), Cooke's production has a terrific vivacity. The performances are superlative. Though you might flinch from being her child, Samantha Spiro is beyond praise as Sarah ... When she pleads with Ronnie 'don't let me finish this life thinking I lived for nothing', I was wrestling with lump in my throat of golf ball proportion. Wonderful, too, is Danny Webb's performance as her feckless husband, Harry. Highly recommended."

- Matt Hannigan


Tagged in this Story