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Review: Chicken Soup With Barley

A satisfying serving of Chicken Soup

The Royal Court, London SW1

    Samantha Spiro and Danny Webb. Spiro plays her Jewish mother role as an emotional and idealistic rock
    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.

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