Posts Tagged ‘Arnold Wesker’

Perhaps this should be called ‘Waiting for Ronnie’, as we spend almost three hours doing so. Not a lot happens and, until the last few minutes, it seems to be a ‘slice of life’ play, but in the end Arnold Wesker makes his points. Along the way, though, it’s a masterclass in staging and acting.

Beatie is the youngest of the Bryant’s four daughters. They are Norfolk farm labourers, struggling to make a living but happy with their lot. Beatie returns home from London with her fancy ways and fancy ideas for a two-week holiday. Her socialist boyfriend of three years, Ronnie, with whom she is besotted, will follow, to meet the family for the first time. She spends the first couple of days with sister Jenny and her husband Jimmy, before arriving at her parents home where in Act Three they all assemble (apart from sister Susan, who has fallen out with her mother) for tea with Ronnie.

It’s beautifully staged by James Macdonald on an evocative 50’s set of two kitchens and a parlour by Hildegard Bechtler. It’s full of meaningful pauses, but not in a menacing Pinteresqe way! There isn’t a weak link in the casting, with the ladies shining most. It revolves around Jessica Raine’s Beatie and she invests her with passion and naivety in equal measure. Linda Bassett is simply marvellous as Mrs Bryant, resigned to her lot but still restless. Sisters Jenny and Pearl are beautifully played by Lisa Ellis and Emma Stansfield.

At the conclusion Beatie proves she is her own woman, emerging from the influence of Ronnie with a passionate speech of hope and hopelessness. The play doesn’t go very far, but I enjoyed the ride greatly.

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Seventeen years is a long time in theatre-going and my reaction to this 1957 Arnold Wesker play is very different today to when I first saw it at the Royal Court in 1994. Somehow it has lost its impact as a play, even if it still impresses as ‘spectacle’ in Bijan Sheibani’s production, which fills the Olivier stage like few productions do.

It’s really a ‘slice of life’ on stage. Many of the characters have their own stories, but there isn’t an overall story as such. It’s a stage picture of life in a busy kitchen in the late 50’s with snatches of social history – but not in enough depth to make it a ‘state of the nation’ play. It’s a very realistic portrait of work and it captures post-war attitudes and habits, but it doesn’t fully satisfy. It takes a while to warm up and the second act is fatally flawed by a dull first half. It would make a better one-acter with 10 minutes cut from the beginning of the first act and 20 from the beginning of the second.

Giles Cadle’s design is one of the best I have seen in the Olivier, though – a completely realistic restaurant kitchen with fine attention to detail. The ensemble is excellent, with Tom Brook standing out as Peter and lovely cameos from Tricia Kelly as Bertha and Ian Burfield as Max. The balletic scenes, where everyone seems to move as one, are stunning too. It’s hard to fault the production, but I’m afraid it doesn’t paper over the cracks in the play. It’s stylish and stylised but it doesn’t grab you and keep you for two hours.

What I thought was a classic appears now to be a play of its time.

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Why do we get so many revivals by playwrights like Chekhov and Pinter and hardly ever see plays by British 20th century playwrights like Arnold Wesker?

This excellent 1958 play tells the story of an East End Jewish family over 20 years, cleverly bookended by the fascist march at Cable Street in 1936 (and the communist reaction) and the communist repression in Hungary (after the defeat of fascism in the second world war). The great success of the play is that the domestic sits comfortably with the history; indeed they each add something to the other – the perspective of the times in which they live for the family’s story and placing a family into history to bring it alive. The picture it manages to paint in six surprisingly short scenes is both vivid and epic.

Samantha Spiro’s Sarah is the family’s anchor and her performance is outstanding. I’ve mostly seen her in comedy and musicals before, so its great to see her as capable at drama (her beaming smiles at the curtain call reminded me of Clare Higgins). Danny Webb is also superb as the less sympathetic character of Harry, making an extraordinary journey from politically passionate but fundamentally lazy husband to a sad disabled incontinent old man. Jenna Augen and Tom Rosenthal make auspicious professional debuts as daughter and son Ada and Ronnie, as does Joel Gillman as young political activist Dave.

Dominic Cook gives the play the impeccable attention to detail we’ve come to expect after Now or Later and Clybourne Park and Ultz’ sets are brilliantly evocative. I can’t wait to see The Kitchen at the NT later in the year, but will someone please revive the other two parts of the trilogy that this forms the first part of please!

Another very satisfying evening at the Royal Court.

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