‘Chicken soup with Barley’ is a ferociously political play, a genre which the Royal Court Theatre seem to thrive off with their snappy sharp productions of controversial topics. This particular drama is set between in 1936 and 1956 - 20 years of great political unrest. We watch the affects of the clash between Communist and Socialists, as conflicting ideals threaten to tear apart a working class Jewish family.
‘Chicken soup with Barley’ is the first play from Arnold Wesker’s theatrical triptych. Dominic Cooke’s production is a stylish revival, so polished that harsh critic Michael Billington gave it a glittering five stars and pronounced it “flawless”. I enjoyed it, and could certainly notice its attributes though failed to really grasp the narrative due to my shameful lack of historical knowledge.
I have come to expect neat and impressive sets from the Royal Court, and here they didn't disappoint. Set and costume designer Ultz has created two mundane and yet fascinating dining room settings, from which the action flits in and out. Each room (one for each half) holds significant reminders of the families struggle and story, with a central emphasis on food and mealtimes, as the play’s title also suggests.
Samantha Spiro is tremendous as Sarah Kahn, the feisty Jewish mother desperate to hold her family together - the driving force throughout the play. Spiro gives a powerful performance and manages to age miraculously by almost twenty years between the two halves, with only a wig to assist her transformation. I was amazed by how human she appears, especially in the scenes between her and her incompetent husband, Harry Kahn (Danny Webb). Sarah is obsessed with making tea, in fact this action preoccupies her character throughout. A nice cup of tea seems to be her answer to any, and every problem. It is a tiny, insignificant motif that effectively ties the plays two halves together perfectly, giving some much needed continuity.
The cast was strong all round, each character with their own socialist opinion. Danny Webb is spectacular as the frustrating father and husband, particularly in the latter half when after two strokes he sits rotting away crippled in his chair, barely moving or muttering a word and yet always making his presence known. The enthusiast son, Ronnie Kahn, is played by a dashing Tom Rosenthal. He is inspiring with his upbeat optimism and romantic view of the crisis, until he returns home a few years later, aggressively confronting his mother after his complete loss of faith - an alarming and wonderfully commanding final scene.
‘Chicken soup with Barley’ continues until 9 July 2011, book here.