Chicken Soup with Barley

Arnold Wesker
Royal Court Theatre Downstairs
(2011)

Chicken Soup with Barley production photo

These days a revival at the Royal Court comes as a rare pleasure amidst a welter of fine new writing. Chicken Soup with Barley, which actually started life at the Belgrade in Coventry before heading to Sloane Square, is a classic play of its time and worth a fresh viewing.

Now, 53 years on, this kitchen sink (realistically designed by Ultz), political drama smacks of history rather than a portrayal of contemporary life but it still speaks volumes to a contemporary audience in Dominic Cooke's well-judged production.

The play serves two purposes. It is a warts and all depiction of the East End Jewish Kahn family, which owes more than a little to the Weskers. On a wider canvas, it tracks the rise and fall of British communism in two decades starting with the Cable Street riots of 1936, as war raged in Spain.

Holding it together is matriarch and martyr Sarah, whose earnest commitment to the Party and selfless devotion to the family are perfectly captured by Samantha Spiro. In particular the actress gives delight with her use of the Yiddish intonations that are de rigueur amongst the older generation.

Her life would be hard enough with a normal husband but an all-too-believable Danny Webb makes mendacious Harry a weak, lazy sponger who, in the later periods, relishes the inactivity that a stroke legitimises. This married couple's arguments are fearsomely convincing and frequently comic gems.

With these combined genes, the children were always likely to rebel and go in different directions, literally as well as metaphorically.

Jenna Augen as older Ada starts out as a political firebrand like her tough, trade unionist Auntie Cissie (Alexis Zegerman). After the War though, with her husband from whom she has been separated for almost the whole of the first decade of their marriage, she drops out of political and family life to the calmness of a farm in the Fens.

Ronnie, the Arnold figure played in a nice cameo by Tom Rosenthal, might enjoy a dialectical debate and harbour ambitions to become a writer. However, in this first play of the famous Wesker Trilogy, he also leaves home to make a life working in a Paris kitchen. However, this makes him no happier than his father.

Starting with the battle between enthusiastic and idealistic Jewish Communists and Mosley's black shirts, the drama melds politics and people to great effect.

It moves on a decade, after an interval very early in the 2¼ hours, to the post-war period as Palestine is poised to become a Jewish state.

The final stages take us to late 1956 and the period of chilling realism following the Soviet invasion of Hungary when so many left-wingers lost faith in the cause - but not the wonderful Sarah.

Chicken Soup with Barley holds up really well half a century after its premiere, providing insight into the East End Jewish community long gone. It also provides a welcome reminder of the era when both intellectuals and the working classes believed that the Communist revolution was on the brink of changing Britain and the world forever.

Playing until 9 July

Reviewer: Philip Fisher