Samantha Spiro has undergone a complete transformation since her Olivier Award-winning outing at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. Gone are the pretty musical costumes and perky show tunes, replaced by a working class spirit and communist chants.
The Royal Court Theatre’s revival of Arnold Wesker’s seminal Chicken Soup With Barley feels strangely timely with protests across the world making front pages daily. While we are, thankfully, not facing the threats of fascism the Khan family find themselves rallying against, the first scenes set in 1936, in which Spiro and the rest of the cast take to the streets with nervous excitement, are electrifying.
Beginning with the East End protests against Oswald Mosley, moving forward to the disillusionment following the Second World War and ending 20 years later in 1956 when rumours of the Hungarian revolution were spreading fast, only Sarah Khan’s (Spiro) spirit remains constant. A staunch communist and feisty political activist, she leads the war from her kitchen table, feeding up the young revolutionaries and providing a lifetime’s supply of tea and support.
But as the years roll on, Sarah finds herself increasingly on her own in the fight, faced with a weak, false righteous husband (Danny Webb), her pragmatic daughter Ada (Jenna Augen) who deserts socialism for a quiet country life, and a son (Tom Rosenthal) who, when free from the ever-watchful eye of his mother, quickly loses the will to fight.
Ultz’s homely designs portraying the Khan’s shabby flat, marks the passing time with subtle changes over each scene, sepia photos appearing in the later years and the china slowly modernising, but the kitchen table and the piercing whistle of the boiling kettle always take centre stage. In the early days the table represents a house full of lovingly argumentative friends and family, in later years it symbolises a quiet loneliness after the flame of passion and fight has been distinguished.
While Webb and Rosenthal stand out with truly heart-wrenching performances as a father and son at odds, it is undeniably Spiro’s show. The actress is unrecognisable as the aging chatterbox, Jewish housewife, but her natural gutsy energy is relentless and as she takes to the streets brandishing her rolling pin as a weapon, her fixed determination is truly inspiring.