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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Chicken Soup With Barley
Royal Court Theatre Summer 2011

Arnold Wesker's semi-autobiographical drama is deservedly a Twentieth Century classic. It's a small play, but a true and honest one, presenting its piece of reality with honour and sympathy, and this Royal Court revival is as fine a reminder of the play's power as you could desire.

Wesker introduces us to some East End Jewish Socialists (and of course that's a triple tautology, each of those terms implying the others), first in 1936, then ten years later and ten years after that.

His subject is the degree to which these people's social commitment is as integral a part of their identity as their religion or family life, subject to flux but never really to change, and how that gives them a heroism and majesty their modest appearance cannot disguise.

At the core of the play is Sarah Kahn and her extended family, not only her blood kin but the neighbours and comrades who treat her as a surrogate mother and inspiration.

In 1936 she feeds and supports them on the famous day the East End stood up against a march of English fascists; in 1946 she struggles to hold together a family still not recovered from the war; and in 1956 she defends her continued socialist faith to those who are wavering.

There are also more domestic plot lines to the play, about Sarah's useless husband, whose declining health makes him an increasing burden as the years pass, about friends who fall by the wayside, and about the next generation's difficulties finding their paths in the postwar world.

And much of the power of the play comes from Wesker's recognition that all these things are intertwined. These are people for whom talking politics is as natural as drinking tea (and often done at the same time), for whom there is no distinction between the bonds of family and of shared humanity, and for whom the big questions of social justice and equality really matter and are as immediate as what's for dinner.

Because Wesker makes us see and feel the reality of this group portrait, we believe the truth of his vision and share his admiration for these unspectacular heroes. That we know now that Communism failed and that even then the play's characters had to wilfully blind themselves to some truths to maintain their commitment does not in any way reduce the play, whose strength which lies in creating and sustaining a solid reality.

Director Dominic Cooke and his cast contribute significantly to this reality. Another revival of this play a few years ago failed because you could never believe the actors had ever met each other before, much less that the characters were related.

But every detail, from the ease with which they converse or happily break into song (socialist anthems, of course, but sung with the joy and naturalness of pop tunes) to the believable way children's accents differ slightly from their parents', brings us into this world and makes us believe in it.

Samantha Spiro creates the ultimate Jewish mother without ever lapsing into caricature, and even comes very close to full success when Wesker in the play's final moments challenges the actress with an aria asserting her beliefs that may be a bit too poetic for the character.

 Danny Webb plays the weakling husband without apology and thus helps us understand and accept his limitations, and Jenna Augen and Tom Rosenthal have strong moments as the grown children trying to find their way without abandoning the family faith.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -   Chicken Soup With Barley - Royal Court 2011

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