Roots, Donmar Warehouse, London – review

It’s kitchen sink drama all right. There’s a large ceramic basin centre stage in the first two acts of Arnold Wesker’s 1959 play Roots and not just for show. The wives in the play spend much of their time at the sink, scrubbing potatoes, washing up, wiping down. It’s deliberate naturalism – Wesker often shows people working – but it has more significance than that. In both this play and the earlier Chicken Soup with Barley (recently revived at the Royal Court) Wesker uses close domestic focus to examine huge socio-political shifts and crunch-points between ideology and reality.

In Chicken Soup, he traces the crises in political faith for a Jewish family in London’s East End as, between 1936 and 1956, their fervent communism is frayed by world events. Ronnie is the son in that family and in Roots the focus moves on to his girlfriend Beatie. Fired up by Ronnie’s socialist ideas, she returns to her rural Norfolk home to try and galvanise her working-class family into awareness of their own condition. But they are too busy, too tired or too browbeaten to hear her.

Central to the play then is the texture of their daily lives and James Macdonald’s superb production honours this. Life is slow, quiet and dogged for Beatie’s folk: the men labour outside, the women in the home – housework is hard, repetitive graft. The play unfolds against the rhythm of the kitchen: as Beatie talks to her sister (Lisa Ellis), the two women dry dishes, fold clothes or sweep the floor of Hildegard Bechtler’s meticulously realistic set. It tests the patience a little, but that is the point: this is a play that accumulates depth and potency and Macdonald’s lovingly observant staging reminds us there is comfort too in routine. We need to feel why Beatie’s folk should heed her and why they can’t – and why she can’t see it. That way we feel the full force of the bittersweet ending in which Beatie, thrillingly, discovers her own voice while her bemused family settle back down to their tea.

At the centre of a fine ensemble, Jessica Raine makes a lovely, mercurial Beatie – by turns affectionate and exasperated, inspiring and condescending – and Linda Bassett is tremendously moving as Beatie’s mother. Tired, doughty and trapped by drudgery, she is the counterpoint to the impassioned matriarch in Chicken Soup. If they met they would probably get on: that is the poignant irony of this wise play.

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