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Michael Attenborough has directed an admirable production of a play written from within the American left of the period, centring on an ethnic minority family during the Great Depression. We followed the conflicts between material concerns and ideology, between feelings and individual duty, between principle and pragmatism; we watched the children take issue with an ineffectual father and, in particular, the toll taken by all these pressures on the mother who glues the extended family together. But enough about the black Chicago family in Big White Fog, which opened at the Almeida in May; it’s time to consider the Bergers from the Bronx in Clifford Odets’ Awake And Sing!, who are…oh, they’re exactly the same, except with less melanin.
This is barely an exaggeration. In each case, the son of the family finds solace in socialist idealism; in each case, the daughter’s life is complicated by a sexual indiscretion and she has to choose between financial consolation and honour; in each case, a slightly too slick uncle and a plain-speaking grandparent add to the mix.
In such circumstances, I’m afraid it matters little that a clutch of strong performances are on show here: Nigel Lindsay as Moe, the distastefully brash but sincere suitor of daughter Hennie; John Lloyd Fillingham as Sam, the insecure nebbish that she married to legitimise the child she was carrying; John Rogan, now wheelchair-bound but as masterly an actor as ever, conveying by a still half-smile Grandpa Jacob’s wry dissent from the line being peddled. And, of course, Stockard Channing as matriarch Bessie, who even as her tyrannical hypocrisies unravel is unable to comprehend that she is doing anything but the best for her family. Such exposure to Odets is welcome; he is too seldom given British stage revivals. Attenborough’s project to expand the social and political range of the fare offered to the Almeida’s notoriously Islington-trendy clientele is likewise noble. But, for those who have seen it all at this address only a few months ago, it can’t help but feel rather stale and pointless.