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  The Theatreguide.London Review


Chicken Soup With Barley
Tricycle Theatre Autumn 2005

Arnold Wesker's family drama is one of the cornerstones of the revolution that took place in British drama fifty years ago. Its portrait of a deeply politicised working-class London Jewish family from the 1930s through the 1950s shows the inevitable strains and crises of the domestic setting amplified by the threats to their Communist idealism.

As some fall away, others struggle to redefine their socialism in ways that work for them and still others prove not to have been committed from the start. It is left to the mother, in a climactic aria of potentially electrifying and heartbreaking power, to express a deeply ingrained belief in the need to care for others, and to care for something, that cuts through all the political rhetoric to the heart of a faith as true and powerful as any religion.

And absolutely none of this comes across in this truly terrible production from the Nottingham Playhouse, one of the most inept, ill-conceived and misdirected professional productions of any play that I have ever seen.

Where to begin? Someone asked during the first interval 'Do you think anyone on that stage has ever actually met a Jew?' To which one might add, or a Londoner, or a socialist, or each other?

The sense of reality - of family and community - so essential to this play is never achieved. At no time will you ever believe that any of these characters have ever met each other before, much less grown up in the same world. Though the programme credits a dialect coach, not only do no two people sound remotely similar, none of them come close to accurate or believable East End Jewish accents.

A small example of the production's ineptness: even in the heat of argument or political debate, everyone politely waits for the speaker to finish talking, and then waits a few seconds more to be sure they're done, before beginning to speak. At no time is there the slightest hint of overlapping dialogue or interruption - and can you possibly believe that of these characters?

The actors never forget their lines or bump into the furniture, but they come close - in Act Two one character's limp comes and goes as he remembers it.

With no reality, the play's occasional weaknesses are amplified. The bits of historical background or political theorising are awkward interruptions in the flow of dialogue rather than being part of the natural fabric of these people's thoughts and lives. The falling-away of friends and family members has no emotional power when we never sensed a unity to begin with. And the mother's great final speech loses most of its power when it is just one little woman's plea for sympathy.

As I have written many times before, when everyone in a play is bad, and bad in the same ways, they're just following orders and the fault lies with the director.

Immediate impressions notwithstanding, this cast is made up of experienced professionals, most of whom will undoubtedly work again, so there is nothing to be gained by naming and shaming. 

The director who has so totally failed his actors, his playwright and his audience is Giles Croft.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Chicken Soup With Barley - Tricycle 2005