Sunday, 3 July 2011

Chicken Soup with Barley at the Royal Court, or Small Tragedies behind Closed Doors

After sitting through three plus hours of the Old Vic's Shakespearean shout fest, Chicken Soup with Barley at the Royal Court came as something of a blessed relief. This is a very human, rather sad play about family disintegration, with a light leavening of political disillusionment.

Arnold Wesker's play follows the lives of the members of the Communist Kahn family beginning as they prepare to confront a demo by Mosley's Black shirts in late 1930s London, and carrying us through to twenty years later as both family and politics crumble. Everything is very open here, and a certain kind of ordinary. Contrasted with the games played by Albee, and the issues posed by Shakespeare's language, dilemmas here are very simply and openly expressed, but just as powerful. Crises happen suddenly, organically, and have to be lived with. The personal ones of family fortunes are easier to get across than the political since today a loss of faith in Communism is hardly surprising, yet the political does come across. There is something in this play of the great hope that things were going to be different after 1945 and the loss of hope, even on this small personal scale resonates.

As with the Almeida's Delicate Balance the play succeeds on the strength of a uniformly excellent ensemble. Particular mentions go to Tom Rosenthal (Ronnie Kahn) and Joel Gillman (David Simmons) both of whom make their professional debuts in this production, something I would not have guessed but for the programme so informing me. Alexis Zegerman (Cissie Kahn) brings off a striking transformation from loyal young socialist to disillusioned grass widow, and likewise Danny Webb (Harry Kahn) who successfully surmounts the challenges of what in some respects might be considered a rather thankless role. I look forward to seeing more of all of them (and indeed the rest of the supporting cast). Above all, though, I enjoyed watching one of my favourite actresses, Samantha Spiro (Sarah Kahn). Her role is the lynch pin of the drama and she delivered every line in a way that told (Mr Spacey might like to note that doing this without shouting can actually be very powerful).

Again, as with the Almeida's Delicate Balance the setting is traditional (beautifully designed by Ultz). Credit should also go to hair and make-up people backstage who successfully manage the gradual aging of the company – Webb in particular is almost unrecognisable in the third act compared to his appearance in the first. All of this gives the company a perfect base on which to work, supporting, helping with atmosphere and character, never getting in the way.

This production doesn't try to make this play any more than it is, it simply sets it going and lets it speak. The ensemble held me, despite weariness, as Spacey's bombast had failed to. Once again it is shown that simple is often best. I look forward to the forthcoming revival of Wesker's The Kitchen at the National.

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