Chicken Soup with Barley


Written by Julie Wade
Photos and illustrations by Johan Persson
13 Monday 13th June 2011

Arthur Wesker's seldom performed 1958 play Chicken Soup with Barley has been given a fresh airing and a face-lift on its new run at the Royal Court Theatre this summer. The first of a trilogy that includes Roots and I'm Talking about Jerusalem, the play charts three periods of the first half of the twentieth century as seen through the eyes and experiences of a family of Jewish immigrants living in the East End of London.

Playwright Wesker's popularity was at its height between 1958 and 1965 and his plays have been performed more abroad than in England, but recently there has been a revival on home shores.

The new production at the Royal Court, brilliantly directed by Dominic Cooke, was first performed in 1958. The first part of a trilogy, it begins in the optimistic years before the Second World War when all was hope and enthusiasm amongst this small group of family and friends, ending in 1956 when many ideals had disintegrated.
The dominant character, played with much energy and panache by Samantha Spiro, is the idealistically driven mother Sarah Kahn.  The family are Jewish East Enders caught up in the anti-fascist movement of 1936 and are actively communist. Friends gather at their house before going on marches, ready to confront the Blackshirts and police. They are full of excitement and political righteousness.  They are also involved with the International Brigade of the Spanish civil war.

The politics are very much of the time, a fascinating era of change and unrest. The family is solid but the father, played by an incredibly convincing Danny Webb, is weak and much maligned by his wife. Deservedly so, but you can't help but feel sorry for him.  As the play progresses through the years, the children grow up and fight against the mother's ideals. Whilst she always has a warm and welcoming home for them and their friends, she seems unable to adapt to the changing times.
This is a very moving play about politics and family life. The sets by Ultz take you back to the times of open fires and incredibly inconvenient kitchens with total authenticity. The acting is superb, with Tom Rosenthal as the son outstanding in his development from 'happy-go-lucky' youth to disillusioned young man.

You can watch Chicken Soup with Barley being performed at the Royal Court Theatre until 9 July 2011.

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