Awake And Sing!

Published April 17, 2008

The autumn season at Islington's Almeida begins where the summer season ended, in Depression era America. Where Theodore Ward's Big White Fog was concerned with a black family living in Chicago, Clifford Odets's Awake And Sing! follows the fortunes of a Jewish family in New York's the Bronx at a time when family life was strained by pressures of money and a changing world. Matthew Amer was at the press night.

Sitting in the Almeida's auditorium, we peek into the home of the Bergers. The cabinets displaying china and lace adornments to furniture disguise the fact that the family is struggling under the stresses and strains of the Depression. Son Ralph, a working man, doesn't even have his own room, instead sleeping on the sofa. A glance upwards reveals laundry hung like bunting; a celebration of New York apartments.

Odets's drama is a static affair, all the action happening in the conversation of the extended family. Mother Bessie, played by Broadway royalty Stockard Channing, is an overbearing traditional matriarch; the head and the heartbeat of the family. Family and social status come first; whatever happens, the family’s name will not be degraded on her watch.

This, of course, causes problems when strong-willed, outspoken daughter Hennie, played with zeal and vigour by rising star Jodie Whittaker, finds herself in trouble, and when Ralph falls in love with a girl short on monetary possibilities.

The strength of Odets's play comes in the capturing of a moment in time and the tensions that prevailed. The changing of eras and priorities between the old and the young, the increasing gap between the haves and the have nots, issues of class, politics and revolution are captured in the happenings in the Berger living room.

It is a time of passion, where everyone seems to live with a fire in their belly, if not in their fireplace. Father Myron is the only placid member of the family, beaten into submission by Bessie and his acceptance as one of life's failures.

Director Michael Attenborough has created a fast-paced production that keeps Odets's often witty dialogue running at a naturally high speed. Most eyes will be on the award-winning American actress Channing who delivers a mother hard to the point of callousness but always true to her beliefs. Ben Turner's Ralph is a grown man desperate to be given permission to live his life, while Nigel Lindsay's family friend Moe Axelrod moves from textbook racketeer to savvy and caring family member.

Awake And Sing runs at the Almeida until 20 October.

MA