Arnold Wesker would appear to be the next writer chosen for a big revival; the National will be getting in on the act in the autumn but first up the Royal Court have made a rare dig into their own archives for 1958's Chicken Soup With Barley. Starting in 1936, a group of East End Jewish Communists are preparing to take on Mosley's marches. By the play's end in 1956, all but one have become disillusioned with the cause. Samantha Spiro is excellent as the central character of Sarah Kahn, lumbered with a husband who can't stay in a job for more than a couple of weeks but maintaining her idealism, it being in many ways what keeps her going.
I'm not a huge fan of political plays whose approach largely consists of having the characters discuss their points at length on stage, but while this is partly what Wesker does, he also uses a family and community to reflect the global changes that were going on. So in the fight of the first Act, the idealism is blinding: Director Dominic Cooke has put the interval in early allowing for one of those massive set changes (designed by Ultz) that are becoming a Royal Court trademark¹ and in the interval we were discussing how certain both sides (fascists and communists) were in the 1930s that they were in the right. When we return it's 1946 and Sarah's husband (a quietly devastating performance from Danny Webb) has the first of two strokes; while their son Ronnie (Tom Rosenthal from Friday Night Dinner) has become a lively and enthusiastic party member. By 1956 word is starting to get out that the communist nations of the Eastern bloc aren't the promised utopia and with the world's disillusionment comes Ronnie's, bringing it back to the home.
The performances are all excellent and there's plenty of food for thought here but by the end the point is being hammered home a bit too unsubtly and everything's become incredibly bleak. From what I'd heard about the play I'd expected to like this less than I did; it's a spot-on production undoubtedly, and there's a lot to admire in the play but by the end it really does show its age.
Chicken Soup With Barley by Arnold Wesker is booking until the 9th of July at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs.
¹although after Wastwater, any show that takes more than a minute to completely replace the set feels like it's not really making an effort