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Chicken Soup with Barley review at Royal Court London

Arnold Wesker’s stirring play charts one family’s fragmentation over a 20 year period. It opens in 1936, in the East End attic flat of Sarah and Harry Kahn, with the Battle of Cable Street raging outside their window. These scenes are full of optimism and the real sense that socialism is the answer, that change is possible if they band together under the red flag.

Over later years, this sense of hope is eroded and offset by something more pragmatic, and with the exception of Sarah, the fight slowly seeps out of the characters. Samantha Spiro gives a towering performance as a woman whose faith, in the need to always keep up the struggle and in the power of tea and food to heal, keeps her strong but eventually leaves her isolated. Her passion is enveloping but also oppressive, with no room for argument, and it’s a heavy weight she passes on to her children, Ada and Robbie.

Danny Webb is perhaps even more impressive as the husband who cannot share her convictions and whose physical deterioration following a stroke allows him a means of escape. He seems to shrink, in every sense, as the play progresses.

Though there’s a forced, awkward quality to those early attic scenes, Dominic Cooke’s production grows in power as the play moves into the forties and fifties, with the bursts of domestic volatility interspersed with periods of silence and the clink of soup spoons.

The set, designed by Ultz, also reflects this shift in circumstance, from cramped but warm attic to a spacious if rather chilly living space. The final scene, in which Sarah’s young, idealistic son – played by Tom Rosenthal – comes home tired and afraid, his spirit broken, has an extraordinary rawness.

Production Information

Royal Court, London, June 2-July 9

Author
Arnold Wesker
Director
Dominic Cooke
Producer
Royal Court Theatre
Cast includes
Samantha Spiro, Tom Rosenthal, Danny Webb, Alexis Zegerman, Jenna Augen, Steve Furst, Joel Gillman, Ilan Goodman, Harry Peacock
Running time
2hrs 30mins

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