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Chicken Soup with Barley, the first in a trilogy that includes Roots and I’m Talking about Jerusalem was first performed at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry in 1958 and transferred to the Royal Court in the same year. The full trilogy was performed at the Royal Court in 1960.
The kettle boils in 1936 as the fascists are marching. Tea is brewed in 1946, with disillusion in the air at the end of the war. Twenty years on, in 1956, as rumours spread of Hungarian revolution, the cup is empty.
Sarah Kahn, an East End Jewish mother, is a feisty political fighter and a staunch communist. Battling against the State and her shirking husband she desperately tries to keep her family together.
A landmark state-of-the-nation play capturing the collapse of an ideology alongside the disintegration of a family.
Arnold Wesker is one of Britain’s seminal post-war playwrights. His varied writings include essays, short stories, poetry, journalism and 49 plays, which have been translated into 18 languages. His other plays include The Kitchen, Roots, Chips with Everything and Shylock.
Artistic Director of the Royal Court Dominic Cooke directs. He recently directed the award-winning production of Clybourne Park, which opened at the Royal Court in September 2010 to critical acclaim and ran in the West End earlier this year.
Age guidance 14+
Running time 2hrs 20 mins approx, including one interval
£10 Monday tickets are available on the day of perf from 9am online, 10am in-person.
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Read John Nathan’s article on Arnold Wesker and his work in the Jewish Chronicle
Select a Date
Dates in June
|Thu 2 Jun 2011||7:30pm||Concessions Available, Preview Performance||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£28, £20, £12|
|Fri 3 Jun 2011||7:30pm||Concessions Available, Preview Performance||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£28, £20, £12|
|Sat 4 Jun 2011||7:30pm||Concessions Available, Preview Performance||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£28, £20, £12|
|Mon 6 Jun 2011||7:30pm||Preview Performance||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£10|
|Tue 7 Jun 2011||7:00pm||Press Night||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£28, £20, £12|
|Wed 8 Jun 2011||7:30pm||Concessions Available||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£28, £20, £12|
|Thu 9 Jun 2011||7:30pm||Concessions Available||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£28, £20, £12|
|Fri 10 Jun 2011||7:30pm||Concessions Available||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£28, £20, £12|
|Sat 11 Jun 2011||2:30pm||Concessions Available, Saturday Matinees||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£28, £20, £12|
|Sat 11 Jun 2011||7:30pm||Concessions Available||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£28, £20, £12|
|Mon 13 Jun 2011||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£10|
|Tue 14 Jun 2011||7:30pm||Post-Show Talk||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£28, £20, £12|
|Wed 15 Jun 2011||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£28, £20, £12|
|Thu 16 Jun 2011||2:30pm||Concessions Available, Mid-Week Matinee||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£28, £20, £12|
|Thu 16 Jun 2011||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£28, £20, £12|
|Fri 17 Jun 2011||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£28, £20, £12|
|Sat 18 Jun 2011||2:30pm||Concessions Available, Saturday Matinees||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£28, £20, £12|
|Sat 18 Jun 2011||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£28, £20, £12|
|Mon 20 Jun 2011||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£10|
|Tue 21 Jun 2011||7:30pm||Captioned Performance||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£28, £20, £12|
|Wed 22 Jun 2011||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£28, £20, £12|
|Thu 23 Jun 2011||2:30pm||Concessions Available, Mid-Week Matinee||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£28, £20, £12|
|Thu 23 Jun 2011||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£28, £20, £12|
|Fri 24 Jun 2011||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£28, £20, £12|
|Sat 25 Jun 2011||2:30pm||Concessions Available, Saturday Matinees||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£28, £20, £12|
|Sat 25 Jun 2011||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£28, £20, £12|
|Mon 27 Jun 2011||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£10|
|Tue 28 Jun 2011||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£28, £20, £12|
|Wed 29 Jun 2011||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£28, £20, £12|
|Thu 30 Jun 2011||2:30pm||Concessions Available, Mid-Week Matinee||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£28, £20, £12|
|Thu 30 Jun 2011||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£28, £20, £12|
Dates in July
|Fri 1 Jul 2011||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£28, £20, £12|
|Sat 2 Jul 2011||2:30pm||Concessions Available, Audio Described Performance, Saturday Matinees||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£28, £20, £12|
|Sat 2 Jul 2011||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£28, £20, £12|
|Mon 4 Jul 2011||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£10|
|Tue 5 Jul 2011||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£28, £20, £12|
|Wed 6 Jul 2011||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£28, £20, £12|
|Thu 7 Jul 2011||2:30pm||Concessions Available, Mid-Week Matinee||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£28, £20, £12|
|Thu 7 Jul 2011||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£28, £20, £12|
|Fri 8 Jul 2011||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£28, £20, £12|
|Sat 9 Jul 2011||2:30pm||Concessions Available, Saturday Matinees||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£28, £20, £12|
|Sat 9 Jul 2011||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£28, £20, £12|
|Mon 11 Jul 2011||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£10|
|Tue 12 Jul 2011||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||28, £20, £12|
|Wed 13 Jul 2011||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||28, £20, £12|
|Thu 14 Jul 2011||2:30pm||Concessions Available, Mid-Week Matinee||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||28, £20, £12|
|Thu 14 Jul 2011||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||28, £20, £12|
|Fri 15 Jul 2011||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||28, £20, £12|
|Sat 16 Jul 2011||2:30pm||Concessions Available, Saturday Matinees||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||28, £20, £12|
|Sat 16 Jul 2011||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||28, £20, £12|
Sold out Performances
Tickets £28, £20, £12
Mondays all seats £10 (available on the day of perf from 9am online, 10am in-person.)
Concessions £5 off top two prices* (avail. in advance for all perfs until 11 June incl. and all matinees. For all other perfs, available on a standby basis on the day)
25s and under £8*
School and HE Groups of 8+ 50% off top two prices (avail. Tuesday–Friday)
Groups of 6+ £5 off top price (avail. Tuesday–Friday)
Access £12 (plus a companion at the same rate)
(* ID required, not bookable online. All discounts are subject to availability.)
5 stars John Nathan, The Jewish Chronicle, Thursday 16 June 2011
A satisfying serving of Chicken Soup
Samantha Spiro and Danny Webb. Spiro plays her Jewish mother role as an emotional and idealistic rock
Are there any first acts in British drama more stirring than that in Arnold Wesker’s Chicken Soup With Barley? It is set in 1936, in a claustrophobic East End flat while outside thousands of fascists congregate for their march. What happened that day was probably the proudest moment in the history of British Jewry, as Jews took to the streets to confront Mosley’s black shirts.
With friends and family gathering for the fight, the scene is brimful of hope, bravery and communist idealism – qualities embodied by Wesker’s matriarch (he modelled the character on his mother), Sarah Kahn. She is played here to perfection by Samantha Spiro who takes a role that has in the past been reduced to the stereotype of the shrugging, kvetching Jewish mother and makes it exactly the political and emotional rock it should be.
From the play’s initial high, which in the row between Sarah and her weak husband Harry (Danny Webb) contains the seed of the family’s disintegration, Dominic Cooke’s superbly modulated production takes us through the two decades that followed to 1956, by which time the Soviet Union has invaded Hungary, the Kahns are in a council flat, Harry is a stroke-stricken wreck and everyone but Sarah – especially her grown-up son Ronnie (Tom Rosenthal) – has lost faith in idealism. It is a descent into hopelessness that climaxes in Sarah’s call for her son to care or die.
Over 50 years after the play made its triumphant Royal Court debut, the skill with which Wesker combines the personal and the political is still a marvel. And where the writing feels self-consciously grand, Cooke compensates with subtlety and nuance.
There is a kind of irony that Cooke, whose production of Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children caused so much anguish to many Jews, is the restorer of a much-neglected Jewish voice to the British stage. But it does demonstrate theatre’s enduring capacity to infuriate and invigorate. Chicken Soup does the latter in spades, and more importantly puts Wesker back with a production that he and his play deserve.
5 stars Michael Billington, The Guardian, Wednesday 8 June 2011
Either because of a paucity of good new plays or an urge to rediscover the recent past, this is proving to be a summer of revivals. Now it is the turn of Arnold Wesker, whose 1958 play, the first part of a theatrical triptych, comes back to the Royal Court in triumph. It reminds us of Wesker’s rare gift for generating strong emotion while encompassing big ideas.
Spanning 20 years, his play charts the disintegration of the east end Kahn family, dominated by the feisty Sarah, against a background of collapsing faith in communism. In 1936 there is a palpable air of hope as the Kahn’s extended Jewish family unites to fight Mosley’s Blackshirts and as young idealists rush to join the International Brigade in Spain. By 1946 Sarah is trying to hold the family together as her feckless husband, Harry, suffers a stroke and her daughter, Ada, rejects industrial society. And when we get to 1956, with the Soviet invasion of Hungary and the growth of a new materialism, Sarah looks increasingly isolated in her shining optimism.
One of Wesker’s many achievements is to put on stage different forms of socialism: if Sarah’s is instinctive, her son Ronnie’s is romantic and that of her union-loving sister-in-law pragmatic. But Wesker, at his best, is also capable of showing human relationships tested to breaking-point. There is a tremendous scene in the first act in which Sarah turns on her thieving, workshy husband, reminiscent of O’Casey’s Captain Boyle in Juno and the Paycock, with uncontrolled fury. Equally stirring is the play’s climax, when the young Ronnie, shattered by the sight of the Soviet tanks rolling into Budapest, confronts his mother’s unshakeable faith in socialist brotherhood. It is precisely because Wesker can understand both sides of the argument that the scene radiates such power.
Everything about Dominic Cooke’s flawless production and Ultz’s design, down to the Bakelite radio and the mahogany mantelpiece clock, looks right. Even if Samantha Spiro has to don a wig to convey Sarah’s growing age, she captures perfectly her indomitable spirit and equation of socialism with love and food. Danny Webb is also quite stunning as her husband: as he sits hunched in his chair seeking to withstand Sarah’s verbal assault, he seems to shrink before our eyes. With strong support from Tom Rosenthal as the idealistic Ronnie and Harry Peacock as a young militant turned Manchester shopkeeper, this is a production that should encourage a whole new generation to discover the often neglected Wesker. 4 stars Caroline McGinn, Time Out, Tuesday 14th June 2011
The Royal Court’s new-writing menu has been heavy on bourgeois angst lately, especially the slightly under-nourished girls’ boarding school variety. So Dominic Cooke’s subtle, inspirational revival of Arnold Wesker’s communist kitchen drama (the new-writing sensation of 1958) is food for the soul. Wesker, whose first play, The Kitchen, will be revived at the National in September, is overdue for 2011’s live reappraisal, although you can see why he became untrendy. Passionate conviction, not sex or violence, is his driving theme in this three-act portrait of an East End Jewish family and their comrades.
In Chicken Soup with Barley, the memories – beautifully located in designer Ultz’s teabag-brown living rooms – are semi-autobiographical, but the shocks are international. The family drama opens, headily, in 1936 with the Battle of Cable Street and ends in 1956 with the USSR’s demolition of the Hungarian Revolution, a brutal invasion which killed communism as a political force in Britain. Wesker has a unique perception of the way these seismic events tenderise and abruptly alter the rhythm of lives lived close together in a little room. His enduring image of our own conflict between communism and fascism is dauntless mother Sarah Kahn, dashing out of her tiny flat to bash Mosley’s Blackshirts with a rolling pin.
Samantha Spiro gives a beautiful performance as Sarah, confronting her shifty husband and disillusioned children with approximately the same piercing homely warmth as her ever-whistling kettle. Danny Webb is equally moving as husband Harry, who evades her forceful love as persistently as the jobs he’s always losing. He dwindles, distorted by strokes, into a leaking piece of human furniture by the fireplace. Dominic Cooke’s production suggests that Sarah, whose communism is an extension of her comically warm hospitality, finally forgives and loves her husband when he is old, crippled and humiliating: a typical instance of the great grace this politically astute director brings to a play which hymns love, in theory and practise, but has its moments of youthful didacticism.
As with communist literature, it’s the analysis which is Wesker’s great weakness and strength: each character is the face of a particular argument in British socialism. At best, these political trajectories are also devastatingly personal, never more so than in Harry Peacock’s beautifully realised Monty Blatt, Cable Street hero-turned-capitalist greengrocer. But it is Sarah who is Wesker’s unforgettable creation. She and her husband scratch against each other with all the ordinary fallibility of a stuck marital record, yet her persistent compassion is heroic. She stands here as an unanswerable refutation to any man (or woman) who does not care to care. 4 stars Lucy Powell, Metro, Monday 13th June 2011
It’s more than 50 years since Arnold Wesker began his trilogy of plays about the working-class Jewish experience. In the past half-century they’ve been hugely lauded and hardly ever performed. Until now. This slow-burning, meticulous revival from the Royal Court, where his first play of the trilogy was staged in 1958, should, by rights, mark the first of many.
Wesker’s portrayal of the slow bleed of hope out of the heart of a Jewish family in the East End, and out of the socialism that bound it together, is lovingly detailed and flawlessly executed. The action moves from 1936 to 1956: in the face of seismic events happening outside its windows, the Kahns’ tatty parlour gradually empties of song and communist callers, and the glorious tomorrow of the socialist revolution recedes ever further from view.
Only Sarah Kahn – a fury of maternal love that is also cripplingly cruel – refuses to abandon the sinking ship of her beliefs. Her husband, Harry (an outstanding Danny Webb), decays before our eyes from a wily chancer into a chair-bound, dried-up husk.
Dominic Cooke’s nuanced production is superbly fleshed out, singing loud even in its silences, where marital disappointments bloom like bruises.
It drags its heels initially, hampered by slightly ham-fisted, historical exposition. However, Wesker manages to render his vast political themes painfully personal. And in the hands of the astonishing Samantha Spiro as Sarah, this production’s slow, emotional crescendo proves to be devastating.
A remarkably rendered, unsentimental portrait of a fraying community’s unravelling ideals. 4 stars David Jays, The Sunday Times, 12th June 2011
Long before the Arab spring came the battle of Cable Street. Arnold Wesker’s landmark 1958 play about political fervour begins with the Kahn family in the East End, during the antifascist protests of the 1930s. Over two decades, their blazing conviction becomes a dwindling flame. Only the matriarch, Sarah (an incandescent Samantha Spiro), retains her socialist faith: “You have to start with love.” At the Kahns’ home, everyone noshes and natters, courtesy of Sarah’s perpetual-motion catering — Spiro is a blur of tea and pickles. Sarah wants to change the world, but she can’t even rouse her husband. Spiro’s eyes shine, while Danny Webb, as her hoarse and shifty spouse, wishes that life would leave him alone. These champion actors identify the chasm in this misbegotten marriage, while Tom Rosenthal is excellent as their gawky, questing son, his firebrand ideas doused. The sprightly flowers stencilled on the family’s wallpaper give way to a new beige home. Colour threatens to drain away, but not in Wesker’s raw, rattling prose or in Dominic Cooke’s attentive production, which sharpens as the family’s hopes narrow. 4 stars Quentin Letts, The Daily Mail, 9th June 2011
Sir Arnold Wesker, as he is now, wrote Chicken Soup in the late Fifties when Leftists were in disarray over communism. Their idealism of the Thirties had yielded to the Soviet brutalism which crushed Hungary. Yet some of them still yearned for a sense of belonging to a ‘brotherhood’. The disintegration of the 21st-century’s Left may have been less dramatic (so far), but the revival of this play at the Royal Court is timely.
The wheels are coming off state-enforced egalitarianism. Socialists are again flapping like sheets on a washing line. Today’s Lefties will recognise the arguments which flowed vividly from the Wesker pen half a century ago.
The story gives us the Kahn family, London Jews. Sarah, the mother, adores the community of communism. But there is more to her: she is the long-suffering wife and adoring mother, who hates her sister-in-law. Sarah is a terrific part and it meets its match in Samantha Spiro, who gives a pocket battleship of a performance. Danny Webb balances her as husband Harry. His physical deterioration towards the end is formidably well done. The action, which starts in the East End of the Cable Street riots, is framed by musical bursts of the Internationale and the Red Flag (still mumbled at Labour Party conferences). The dialogue is quick, direct, sparky. With Franco’s fascists bombing Spain, communism is sentimentalised. It is ‘warm’. As the years pass — to 1946, 1947, 1955, 1956 — that warmth fades. The force of the play comes from the fact that the Kahn family unravels as fast as socialism.
This is a strong production of an interesting play. Powerful supporting performances include those of Harry Peacock, Jenna Augen, Alexis Zegerman and Tom Rosenthal. 4 stars Sarah Hemming, Financial Times, Wednesday 8th June 2011“What has happened to all the comrades?” cries the young Ronnie at the end of Chicken Soup with Barley. “Why do I feel ashamed to use words like democracy and freedom and brotherhood?” Why indeed. The world has changed so much since Arnold Wesker’s play was staged at this theatre in 1958 that hindsight lends it even more poignancy than it might have had then. And though it is now a period piece in more ways than one – it is pretty stiff in places and the political points often elbow their way into conversation – it has a deep vein of humanity running through it. Dominic Cooke’s authentic revival, on meticulous sets by theatre designer Ultz, draws this out and is driven by some tremendous performances.
It is a play about loss of faith – not religious, but ideological. We visit the same Jewish family in the East End several times between 1936 and 1956. At the outset they are devout communists, passionately engaged in combating Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts, resolute in their belief in a better future. By 1946, life has frayed the edges of their commitment. By 1956, only Sarah, the matriarch, still believes, and the play concludes with her impassioned argument with Ronnie, her distraught son, who is disillusioned by world events. We see his point, but Sarah’s anguish sounds across the decades as she despairs that people have forgotten what they were fighting for.“Is that what you want? A world where people don’t think any more? Is that what you want me to be satisfied with – a television set?”
Samantha Spiro is outstanding as Sarah, the embattled and battling mother at the heart of the play. She’s funny, busy, passionate – a fighter, who embraces the cause from her kitchen, pausing to deliberate between a meat-tenderizer and a rolling pin as she heads out to take on the fascists, and who is exasperated by her apathetic husband, Harry. She is matched by a superb Danny Webb as Harry, who withers before our eyes as two strokes take their toll.
Seen now, the dated aspects of the play certainly emerge, but so, too, do the timeless ones. Cooke’s beautifully judged production and Spiro’s moving performance leave us with Sarah’s words ringing in our ears: “You’ve got to care or you’ll die.” 4 stars Henry Hitchings, Evening Standard, Wednesday 8th June 2011
When Arnold Wesker’s play first appeared at the Royal Court in 1958, it was passionately acclaimed. Since then his star has declined, to the point where his work is largely neglected – although he was knighted in 2006. Here Dominic Cooke makes a case for renewed interest in the now 79-year-old Wesker, reviving this authentic portrait of a disintegrating Jewish family. We follow the Kahns, who live in the East End, over the period from 1936, when they confront Oswald Mosley’s parading fascists, to 1956, when Soviet tanks are trundling into Budapest. Their relationships are tested, and so are their political commitments. Doubt, apathy and material anxiety replace idealism and fervour – for all except the bustling matriarch Sarah, who’s forever brewing tea and trying to preserve her family’s integrity.
Many of the incidents that shape their lives happen far away – early on there are repeated references to the Spanish Civil War – but world events resonate domestically for the Kahns, who respond to the constant churning of history with a vivid, argumentative emotion that reveals their personal frailties.
There are two stunning performances: from Samantha Spiro, whose Sarah is a nugget of vitality and a model of resilience, and from Danny Webb as her feckless husband Harry, who shrivels unbearably as a result of two strokes. Among the support, the standout is Harry Peacock as a firebrand whose spirit is snuffed out by prosperity.
The play itself has a deep core of humanity. Its title is a reference to a memorable, evocative flavour that remains after everything else has gone – a reminder of the warm, enduring nourishment afforded by friendships. But Wesker’s writing doesn’t slip down easily. He depicts misery and bleakness with great assurance, and there are flashes of humour but as he makes connections between the personal and the political, the dialogue often labours its significance. This feels didactic, and his characters can appear too neatly illustrative of different strands of ideology. In the Fifties, Wesker was applauded for bringing to the stage a stratum of working-class experience that was alien to most theatregoers. Today, the substance of this family chronicle seems less novel, but it’s a lot more than just a dusty period piece, and Cooke’s interpretation, with an affectionately detailed design by Ultz, is meticulous and impressive. 4 stars Libby Purves, The Times, Wednesday 8th June 2011
Arise, ye starvelings, from your slumbers! Fifty-three years on, Sir Arnold Wesker’s state-of-the-nation play is back in its first London home and fiery as ever, though its political arc is now archaeology. An East End Jewish communist family live through two decades from 1936: we meet them amid the anti-fascist demonstrations in the East End, then postwar, then in 1956, ageing, sadder, disillusioned by Soviet atrocities.
In 1958 it was a passionate young man’s play, from a Wesker romantic about his parents’ generation and anxious about his own. Watching Dominic Cooke’s intense and authentic revival it is easy to be caught up. Ragged voices sing the Internationale or the Red Flag, and in the 1936 attic, flushed from street battle, voices raised in “England Arise!” send a shiver down your spine. But as the years go by, and attrition wears down idealism, the disembodied entr’acte choruses become hollow and cold with echo.
At the heart of it is Samantha Spiro, superb as Sarah Kahn. A simple determined matriarch who equates socialism with love and hope, she ages brilliantly through the decades. At first she bustles in the East End attic, chivvying her menfolk as they revel in the sparkle and dash of the Cause. When the demonstration kicks off she runs out, hesitating delightfully between a rolling pin and a meat-hammer as her weapon. Twenty years on she is an old woman worn down by her husband, but can still round on her wimp of a son and raise a laugh from the audience with “You want me to move to Hendon and forget who I am?”. Spiro’s final peroration — which lifts the play from a dying grimness — should still make Wesker proud.
So should his splendidly compressed argument about political engagement: Monty — once a firebrand, now a grumpily apolitical greengrocer — says “There is nothing more to life than a house, some friends and a family”. To which Sarah replies: “And if someone drops an atom bomb on your family?”. He shrugs. “What can I do?”. Indeed. Young Ronnie (Tom Rosenthal) who has given up socialism to become a self-pitying failed writer, offers another good question to a consumer age: “Were we cheated, or did we cheat ourselves?”.
But the play would flag without stress on the personal: the warmth of Spiro’s Sarah, the choleric depression which Danny Webb evokes so well as Harry Kahn, and a notable debut from young Jenna Augen as the daughter Ada. Her role is a hinge of the play: weary, horrified by industrialism and brutalities, she has waited for her man through two wars. She explodes at the table in a terrific credo, sharply delivered. It is one of many very fine moments. 4 stars Charles Spencer, The Telegraph, Wednesday 8th June 2011
Arnold Wesker’s Chicken Soup with Barley at the Royal Court is given a beautifully judged and often deeply moving production.
Arnold Wesker and Harold Pinter were both the sons of Jewish tailors, born and brought up within a couple of years of each other in the East End of London. But there the similarities end.
After early success, Wesker’s career has often been dogged by critical hostility and commercial neglect, and, at 79, he sometimes seems an almost marginal figure in British theatre. Pinter, in contrast, had long been established as Britain’s greatest living playwright at the time of his death in 2008, and even his glib and exiguous late political plays were acclaimed by many.
There is also a huge difference in their styles. Pinter was precise, controlled, enigmatic, icy. Wesker, at his best, as here in Chicken Soup with Barley (1958) is warm, untidy, passionate and garrulous.
It is not often that the Royal Court revives its past successes, but I suspect Dominic Cooke, who directs this beautifully judged and often deeply moving production, felt it was time to bring one of the Royal Court’s early heroes in from the cold. In this he has succeeded triumphantly.
The action follows the Kahn family – dominated by the matriarchal Sarah, forever dispensing food, tea, love and passionate faith in socialism – from the demonstrations against Mosley’s Blackshirts in the East End in 1936 to the moment when the Soviet tanks rolled into Hungary in 1956, disillusioning so many fellow travellers on the British Left.
This is a play that genuinely combines the personal and the political – though sometimes clumsily, with occasional terrible lines such as, “What price partition in Palestine, aunt?” that even Cooke cannot make seem anything other than desperate.
But there is far more to admire than cavil over, and there is nothing sentimental about Wesker’s portrait of the Kahn family that he based at least partly on his own. The souring of political hope is strongly caught. And Sarah’s passionate climactic insistence that “if you don’t care, you’ll die” sounded like a moving clarion call even to a crusty old Tory like me.
Nor is there any sentimentality in the portrait of Sarah’s marriage to a workshy wastrel who steals money from her handbag, ducks out of the anti-Fascist demos, and suffers a series of strokes that leave him frail and incontinent. By the end of the drama, he has become a memento mori in the family living room.
And his son Ronnie’s fear that he might become as weak and hopeless as his father is deeply affecting, especially when Cooke, in a virtuosic touch, has the actor playing the young man sitting in the chair previously occupied by his broken dad.
Samantha Spiro is superb as Sarah, turning what might seem an archetypal Jewish character into a beautifully rounded individual, a woman of warmth, sympathy and passion who sometimes succumbs to fury and despair.
Danny Webb is harrowing as the disintegrating father who knows just how third-rate he is, and Tom Rosenthal deeply moving as the son whose socialist dreams turn sour.
But the whole ensemble is outstanding in a production of astonishing vitality, detail and emotional depth. 4 stars Paul Taylor, The Independent, Thursday 9th June 2011
In a year when we are honouring the centenaries of Terence Rattigan and Tennesee Williams, it is good that the Royal Court and the National Theatre are stealing a march on 2012 when Arnold Wesker will celebrate his 80th birthday. This August sees a major revival in the Olivier of his 1959 play, The Kitchen. First off, though, there’s Dominic Cooke’s electric and intensely touching revival of Chicken Soup with Barley, Wesker’s 1958 drama that has the distinction of being one of the very few plays in English that offers an empathetic treatment of a communist family. We follow the Jewish Kahn clan in scenes that offer snapshots of the intertwined disintegration of an ideology and the unravelling of their human relationships.
Kenneth Tynan once said that Wesker, as a committedlyJewish writer, “thinks internationally but feels domestically” – a truth borne out by this piece in which we follow the Kahns from 1936, as they excitedly prepare to blockade Cable Street against Oswald Mosley’s parading blackshirt fascists and as the daughter’s boyfriend prepares to join the International Brigade in Spain.After a middle section in 1946 that shows how fighting with the masses during the Second World War has disenchanted this latter pair with the worker solidarity, the play ends a decade later, after the Soviet invasion of Hungary, with a climactic showdown between fiery, indomitable matriarch Sarah, who still clings to her communist ideals and the partly autobiographical character of the son Ronnie who returns from working in a kitchen in Paris like the disillusioned ghost of himself. Having asserted in the opening section that loyalists can’t postpone love until the struggle is over, “Love comes now. You have to start with love. How can you talk about socialism otherwise?” Sarah is left having to contend that the ideal of brotherhood is a noble goal that has a right to survive even grave disappointment with actual people.
Beautifully capturing the play’s moving ambivalence (if Wesker’s head is with Ronnie, his heart is with Sarah), Cooke’s production has a terrific vivacity. The performances are superlative. Though you might flinch from being her child, Samantha Spiro is beyond praise as Sarah, showing you a warm and indomitable life force whose heart is a big a bus. When she pleads with Ronnie “don’t let me finish this life thinking I lived for nothing”, I was wrestling with lump in my throat of golf ball proportion. Wonderful, too, is Danny Webb’s performance as her feckless husband, Harry. Highly recommended.
Matt Wolf, Arts Desk, Thursday 9th June 2011
“Love comes now. You have to start with love,” urges Sarah Kahn (Samantha Spiro) early in Chicken Soup with Barley, and it’s inconceivable that Dominic Cooke’s knockout production of Arnold Wesker’s 1958 play could have sprung from any other starting point. There’s talk later in Wesker’s three acts (taken here with only one interval) of seeing people in the round, which is exactly what the writing, not to mention Cooke’s superlative ensemble, manages to do: the political and the personal conjoined in a compassion that one might describe as clear-eyed if only it didn’t prompt from an audience such honestly earned tears.
Wesker, 80 next year, was, astonishingly, only in his mid-twenties when he first penned a play that became part of his celebrated Trilogy, first seen at the Court in 1960. More than a half-century on, what compels attention isn’t just the lament for the socialist dream as refracted through a working-class East End Jewish household where talk of “comrades”, “pioneers” and communism goes hand in hand with the soup of the title – and countless cups of tea.
‘Wesker’s craft is of a piece with a theatre season in which the pleasures of the well-made play are reasserting themselves’Even more blistering, at least in so empathic a take on the play, is the way in which a mother blazing with fervour and commitment and, yes, love attempts to connect to a landscape, public and private, that is seen across two decades to be severing ties with her. It isn’t just that Mosley’s fascists give way to World War Two and 1956 Hungary, allowing for a historical backdrop that never overwhelms the human beings centre stage. What’s most striking is that Sarah’s unbending tenacity to the cause seems foolish and wondrous, at once. No mere ideologue, she is seen crying out for beneficence in a world that has all but turned its back on her.
It helps that Wesker builds the play so artfully, his self-evident craft of a piece with a season in which the pleasures of the well-made play are reasserting themselves big time. In the first act, set in the Kahns’ bustling household as crowds gather to face off against Mosley’s blackshirts in the streets below, one is greeted with a panoply of politicisation, the International Brigade beckoning in Spain even as Sarah prepares to wage battle closer to home armed in the heat of the moment with a rolling pin. That’s a kitchen utensil she might well be tempted to use on husband Harry (Danny Webb), a man so failure-prone that to leave him would seem a crime.
Come the second act, it’s 1946, World War Two is over, and some of the Kahns are having second thoughts. Daughter Ada (Jenna Augen) dismisses “humanity” as high-minded claptrap and mocks her own mother for a solicitude that Ada views instead as so much egotism. Younger son Ronnie (Tom Rosenthal, making a dazzling professional debut) is impassioned, to be sure, not least about Beethoven’s Egmont Overture and his own prospects as a poet, and there’s a blissfully funny exchange when he explicates the joys of metaphor to his Aunt Cissie (Alexis Zegerman), who’s more interested in the life of the trade unionist. And in quite literally reading the riot act.
The last act takes us to 1956, Sarah is nearly 60, and the weak-willed, once-loquacious Harry has been all but silenced by a series of strokes. And while politics and life exist as one for Sarah, others aren’t so sure: not one-time firebrand Monty Blatt (Harry Peacock, in marvellously expansive form), who has settled instead for a quiet life with wife Bessie (Rebecca Gethins) and their unborn child. And certainly not Ronnie, who has returned from working as a cook in Paris beset by illness and soul-searing doubt.
“I don’t see things in black and white any more,” Ronnie remarks during one of the British theatre’s defining climactic face-offs, the son all but forcing his adoring fusspot of a mum to leave the kettle to one side for once so the two can talk. But instead of achieving domestic détente, the play builds to a grievous schism that finds Sarah in isolated thrall to humankind, Wesker’s conclusion its own cunning rewrite of the ending of Noël Coward’s The Vortex. (Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea gets a brief nod earlier on, as, elsewhere, do Chekhov, Tennessee Williams, and Clifford Odets.)
That the play resonates not just when voices are raised pays real tribute to Cooke, who finds a startling musicality in the shifts between cacophony and quiet, not least in the shift from the brouhaha in the street outside to the rancour that boils over within the Kahn residence. (Things change once Harry – who is younger than his wife – is sidelined by poor health, Sarah’s task by that point turned from scold to caregiver.) Royal Court veteran Webb (pictured above in the character’s banner-waving better days) charts Harry’s decline keenly but without sentimentality, the damp patch on the seat of his trousers telling us all we need know about a physical disrepair that serves only to strengthen his wife’s resolve.
As for Spiro’s brilliantly realised Sarah, I suppose you could impute just a bit of Mother Courage to so pint-sized, pugnacious a figure in her refusal to be argued down from the fundamental decency she holds most dear. Let’s just say that she cuts her own vivid path, culinary and otherwise, through upheavals that would have done a less galvanic personality in. You find yourself searching, as Sarah does, for love and light, even as darkness – in the act Wesker doesn’t need to show us – eventually descends.
Kate Bassett, The Independent on Sunday, 12th June 2011
At the Royal Court, the revival of Chicken Soup with Barley is far more politically engaged. Arnold Wesker’s intimate portrait of a Jewish, East End family falling apart also has epic sweep. It laments how communist ideals inspired euphoric hopes then how the reality, after the Second World War, brought devastating disappointment. We start with an animated gathering at the Kahns’ spartan attic flat in 1936, as everyone gets ready to sally forth and fight the fascists in the Battle of Cable Street, encouraged by the feisty matriarch, Samantha Spiro’s Sarah. By 1956, the younger generation, including Sarah’s son Ronnie (newcomer Tom Rosenthal), has become bitterly disillusioned – shocked by Stalin’s Soviet Union. A struggling writer, Ronnie is close to mental breakdown, with no cause to believe in any more, while Sarah sticks to her communist principles, refusing to be satisfied with a materialist culture, a “world where people don’t think any more”.
The play, penned by Wesker in his twenties and drawing on his own upbringing, builds rather too obviously to the big philosophical clash between mother and son. And I don’t believe people really stand on chairs to declare their political opinions, in their own kitchens. However, Dominic Cooke’s production is on the whole beautifully naturalistic; Danny Webb is poignant as Sarah’s shiftless husband; and Rosenthal surely has a bright future.
Kate Kellaway, The Observer, 12th June 2011
It has been a week of revivals. Chicken Soup with Barley made Arnold Wesker’s name more than 50 years ago and is back at the Royal Court where one can still feel the truth of Kenneth Tynan’s observation that Wesker “thinks internationally, yet feels domestically”. The Kahns, an East End Jewish family, are encountered over a 20-year period (1936 to 1956), during which they change and stay the same – as families do. But the politics shift: in 1936, as exuberant socialists, the Kahns take to the streets to oppose Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts and wave a huge red flag decorated with hammer and sickle. By 1946 disillusion is setting in. And by 1956 Soviet tanks have invaded Hungary and, for the Kahns, the communist flag is flagging.
Dominic Cooke’s production has perfect vitality (Ultz’s lively design, faithful to the period, helps). The congestion of family life in the East End is brilliantly conveyed as actors steer past furniture and each other, warm their legs against the fire, clear tea things without collision. The pace is exhilarating too: conversation goes at a delicious lick. And one is reminded that what makes the play so powerful is that Wesker never uses it as a soapbox. His political intelligence is shaped by ambiguity, subtlety and his warm heart.
There’s not a dud performance here but Danny Webb overwhelms as Harry Kahn, a man who would rather withdraw into a book than engage with life, and whose failure to hang on to a job seems a silent rebellion. As his health declines, Harry’s silences deepen and, towards the end, after two strokes, he is helpless. Webb fully conveys the pathos of his infirmity and the continuing mystery of his character. Samantha Spiro is terrific, too, as his wife, Sarah Kahn, who urges everyone to sleep better, eat more and keep hoping. Her optimism is heroic, and her final, passionately repeated, message to her son left me with a lump in my throat: “If you don’t care, you’ll die.” Nothing dated about that message. It is the climax to an outstanding evening that puts Wesker back in the limelight – where he belongs.
- Join Blue Badge guide Rachel Kolsky as she takes a walk through London's East End to explore the streets where Arnold Wesker was brought up, inspring him to write Chicken Soup with Barley Download this Podcast
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