The Depression put millions of Americans on the breadline, but for Clifford Odets it brought a regular wage with the Group Theatre, then commercial triumph on Broadway.
His evergreen tragicomedy, regularly revived in New York, depicts a close-knit Jewish family living in a Bronx tenement, clinging to respectability despite the privations and politics of the period.
Odets’ radicalism opened doors for Miller and Wesker but at heart he was a true romantic, lovingly revealed in Michael Attenborough’s revival, the first in London for more than a quarter of a century.
Stockard Channing, the only American in the cast, plays Bessie Berger, a Jewish matriarch whose tough pragmatism has kept her family functioning for 30 years. With the wolf at the door Bessie tricks her pregnant daughter Hennie into marriage with a weak immigrant in a steady job, and ruins the romantic dreams of her son Ralph whose heart is set on marrying a penniless orphan.
This central role calls for an explosive performance, but Channing instead gives it a chic, sturdy determination and cool, self-observing irony, even when hurling hurtful abuse at the tenement janitor.
Paul Jesson brings warmth and charm to his portrayal of Bessie’s ineffectual husband, but the social challenge of the piece is taken up in a striking performance by John Rogan (returning to the stage in a wheelchair) as the droll Marxist grandfather with a stack of Caruso records and radical solutions to social ills, skipping a generation to commune with Ben Turner as his disaffected grandson Ralph.
Three nicely detailed performances also set the piece alight, notably Nigel Lindsay as Hennie’s cynical secret lover, like Bogart and Brando rolled into one, Jodie Whittaker as tearful Hennie, and a brilliant cameo by John Lloyd Fillingham as her humiliated shrimp of a husband, winning a personal round on the first night.