“What has happened to all the comrades?” cries the young Ronnie at the end of Chicken Soup with Barley. “Why do I feel ashamed to use words like democracy and freedom and brotherhood?” Why indeed. The world has changed so much since Arnold Wesker’s play was staged at this theatre in 1958 that hindsight lends it even more poignancy than it might have had then. And though it is now a period piece in more ways than one – it is pretty stiff in places and the political points often elbow their way into conversation – it has a deep vein of humanity running through it. Dominic Cooke’s authentic revival, on meticulous sets by theatre designer Ultz, draws this out and is driven by some tremendous performances.
It is a play about loss of faith – not religious, but ideological. We visit the same Jewish family in the East End several times between 1936 and 1956. At the outset they are devout communists, passionately engaged in combating Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts, resolute in their belief in a better future. By 1946, life has frayed the edges of their commitment. By 1956, only Sarah, the matriarch, still believes, and the play concludes with her impassioned argument with Ronnie, her distraught son, who is disillusioned by world events. We see his point, but Sarah’s anguish sounds across the decades as she despairs that people have forgotten what they were fighting for.
“Is that what you want? A world where people don’t think any more? Is that what you want me to be satisfied with – a television set?”
Samantha Spiro is outstanding as Sarah, the embattled and battling mother at the heart of the play. She’s funny, busy, passionate – a fighter, who embraces the cause from her kitchen, pausing to deliberate between a meat-tenderizer and a rolling pin as she heads out to take on the fascists, and who is exasperated by her apathetic husband, Harry. She is matched by a superb Danny Webb as Harry, who withers before our eyes as two strokes take their toll.
Seen now, the dated aspects of the play certainly emerge, but so, too, do the timeless ones. Cooke’s beautifully judged production and Spiro’s moving performance leave us with Sarah’s words ringing in our ears: “You’ve got to care or you’ll die.”
Royal Court Theatre