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A CurtainUp London London Review
Chicken Soup with Barley

Do you think she ever read a book on political economy in her life? Bless her! Someone told her that socialism was happiness so she joined the Party. — Monty
Chicken Soup with Barley
Danny Webb as Harry and Samantha Spiro as Sarah (Photo: Johan Persson)
Whilst the Royal Court largely puts on new writing every so often they stage an important revival. So it is with Arnold Wesker's 1958 play Chicken Soup with Barley, one of the original play bills of which when it transferred to the Royal Court from the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, is framed on the stairs as you go up to the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs at the Court. As we approach Sir Arnold Wesker's 80th birthday in 2012, this production of his first play is a tribute to the Jewish playwright, a contemporary but rival of Harold Pinter.

Artistic director of the Royal Court Dominic Cooke directs a hand picked cast led by Samantha Spiro, as matriarch Sarah Kahn, last seen at the Open Air in the award winning revival of Hello Dolly. The first act is set in October 1936 in the heart of London's East End on the day of the Cable Street riots when the anti-fascists succeeded in stopping the police clearing the path for a march led by Oswald Mosley's fascist Blackshirts. In Sarah's family they discuss politics and the war in Spain as they take to the streets to oppose the fascists. While Sarah provides open house to the left wing Jewish community, her husband Harry (Danny Webb) steals from her purse and evades her questions about where he has been. There is no doubt that Sarah is a devoted mother, warm, kind and organised but who fusses around as the lynchpin of the family. To the march she takes a rolling pin and thrusts into Harry's hand the flag showing the hammer and sickle emblem of Communism.

After the interval in 1946, Sarah and Harry's daughter Ada (Jenna Augen) has spent many years away from her husband Dave (Joel Gillman), first when he went to fight in Spain and then in the Second World War. Ada wants to leave London for the countryside and this is a blow for Sarah's close knit family. Ten years on in 1956 there is the double blow for Sarah of her son Ronnie (Tom Rosenthal) returning disillusioned from Paris where he was working as a chef and there is the terrible news of the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian uprising. Harry instead of being a money drain with his chequered employment history is now helpless and incontinent. As a historical piece I was at a loss to why there was no reference to the Holocaust or to the setting up of modern Israel.

The first act of Chicken Soup with Barley is inspirational, all the hustle and bustle of the family and hope for the future which is lost twenty years later. The second and third acts have a slower burn. Ultz' accurately detailed set sees the first act in an attic in an older house in the East End but by Acts Two and Three the family are in a council flat in Hackney. Wesker takes a working class family and through them shows the political descent into unhappiness and disillusionment. Samantha Spiro is splendid as the young mother but I wished her later scenes had more pathos. Danny Webb is excellent as the feckless and often workless Harry, pathetic in his final scenes as he loses control over his bodily functions. The ensemble all contribute to this finely written political and social play. Dominic Cooke is a director at the top of his game. Sarah's final speech to her son, ". . .if you don't care you'll die." needs to be the emotional focal point of the play.

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Chicken Soup with Barley
Written by Arnold Wesker
Directed by Dominic Cooke

Starring: Samantha Spiro, Danny Webb
With: Harry Peacock, Joel Gillman, Ilan Goodman, Steve Furst, Alexis Zegerman, Jenna Augen, Charlie Cancea, Sonny Ryan, Tom Rosenthal, Rebecca Gethings
Designed by Ultz
Lighting: Charles Balfour
Sound: Gareth Fry
Music: Gary Yershon
Running time: Two hours 30 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7565 5000
Booking to 9th July 2011
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 7th June 2011 performance at The Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square London SW1 W 8AS (Tube: Sloane Square)

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