Chicken Soup with Barley

Arnold Wesker
Nottingham Playhouse production
Tricycle, Kilburn
(2005)

Production photograph

Chicken Soup with Barley is part of an autobiographical trilogy about East End life in the exciting twenty year period commencing in the mid-1930s. This revival of Arnold Wesker's 1958 play was first seen at the Nottingham Playhouse and is directed by that theatre's artistic director, Giles Croft.

It is perhaps a little odd that a play about the East End of London should be produced in Nottingham and then, like those notorious coals that find their way back to Newcastle, exported back to an audience who will be much more familiar with its milieu. They certainly giggled at references to the suburb of Hendon and to Bloom's kosher restaurant.

The play opens in 1936, as a Jewish couple, Harry and Sarah, are preparing to take part in a demonstration against Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts. They do so amongst a group of Jewish friends including Sam Talbot's Dave who is considering a journey to Spain to fight the Communist cause, despite the fact that he is a pacifist.

While Sarah is a real worker, her husband is the worst kind of layabout and coward who avoids the protest, hiding with his red flag at his mother's house. He manages to lose every job within a week and even steals the last ten shillings from her purse.

Ten years on, the world has been changed by a war and the family are in the process of welcoming the election of the post-war Labour government.

Rachel Edwards as daughter Ada has already had enough of her family and plans to escape to the Fens. The Wesker figure, Ronnie (also played by Talbot), works in a bookshop and dreams of becoming a poet or novelist.

It is during this period that Harry has a first stroke which, while a little debilitating, becomes his excuse for working even less than previously. His only real strength now is in feeling sorry for himself.

Following the second interval, the final act takes place a further ten years on. Now Ronnie is working as a cook in Paris while Sarah is forced to wait hand and foot on her unloved husband. Following his second stroke, Harry slurs his speech, is half paralysed and to Sarah's disgust, incontinent.

It is at this point that Ronnie returns, disillusioned by the path that communism has taken and in particular, events in Hungary. He is at a crossroads where he must decide whether to emulate his father and waste his intelligence and talent or to get a grip on his life.

The play's ending is ambiguous but the programme notes demonstrate that Arnold Wesker managed to get this play produced at the Royal Court and became a successful playwright as a consequence.

From the start, there is a problem with this production of a play that bears similarities to C.P.Taylor's Bread and Butter, so successfully revived by Mark Rosenblatt for Oxford Stage. On this occasion, the accents and motivations feel flawed.

Sarah speaks in almost Yiddish idioms but Shona Morris never seems entirely convinced or convincing in the part. Several of the remaining actors drift in and out of their cod Jewish accents and almost all sound as if they are putting them on for a performance rather than living with them.

The supporting characters are not well drawn and therefore it is essential that the audience believes in the central family. We never really understand the bond between Simon Schatzberger's Harry and Sarah, which is probably based on left-wing ideals. Since this couple do not rise far above the level of caricature, one sympathises with Ada and her rush to disappear and wonders why Ronnie ever returns.

Croft never really manages to get his cast to gel or to work coherently together. This means that while there are some very strong scenes, particularly in monologues by mother and son towards the end, the whole does not convince as it should.

Steve Orme reviewed this production at the Nottingham Playhouse

Reviewer: Philip Fisher