Just over two years since the Royal Court Theatre staged Arnold Wesker’s Chicken Soup With Barley, James Macdonald’s gripping production of Roots, the second in Wesker’s famous trilogy, opened at the Donmar Warehouse last night proving time has altered little in kitchens across the years.
It may be more than five decades since Wesker penned the Norfolk-set family drama, which sees Chicken Soup’s socialist son Ronnie revived as the boyfriend of 22-year-old farmer’s daughter Beatie, but the acutely observed truths in the resulting three acts still hit home with a compelling mix of hilarious familiarity and poignant stings.
Revolving around Beatie’s return from the big smoke to her humble country family home, and building to the day Ronnie is due to arrive, director James Macdonald takes Root’s kitchen sink drama genre as literally as possible, with each act centred around said vessel and the women of the cast taking the play’s naturalistic form to extremes making cakes from scratch, filling baths with steaming water out of heavy buckets and peeling potatoes throughout.
Desperate to evolve from her small-town roots surrounded by a family whose idea of conversation is remarking on the local bus timetable, Beatie’s dialogue is a parrot-like string of quotes from her beloved, worldly East End boyfriend, who, seemingly an expert in everything from baking to the art of debate, has introduced her to a world filled with art, music, intellectualism and socialist ideals; ideals utterly at odds with a community who, in Beatie’s eyes, demand their entertainment be as unchallenging as possible and write off union newspapers as a waste of time.
This is no 21st century drama where the young social rebel would throws tantrums and slams doors when met with blank stares from her homely clan, though. Instead Jessica Raine offers Beatie a Pollyanna joie de vivre, swirling around her family like a bubbling whirlwind of energy, stopping only when she catches herself out of her depth; able to repeat Ronnie’s rhetoric with passion but not yet capable of forming her own opinions.
Macdonald’s moving production captures this pain of growing estranged from your family’s status quo in all its awkwardness and tension, evoking that familiar feeling of returning home and time having stood still as Raine regresses back to 15, curling up with comics and blushing at the advances of their old neighbour Stan Mann minutes after having confidentially boasted about her sex life. While Wesker’s brilliantly banal dialogue is performed by the Donmar’s predictably impressive ensemble cast with warmth and wit, Macdonald paces each of the three acts slowly, the production often almost meditative in its meticulous mundanity.
While Raine, whose subtle city elegance cuts an Audrey Hepburn-meets-land-girl figure on stage, is perfectly cast as the conflicted Beatie, easily convincing the audience of her character’s naivety and exuberance, it is truly an ensemble piece with everyone from David Burke’s vulnerable Stan Mann and Ian Gelder’s proud Mr Bryant helping to paint Wesker’s vivid picture of the domestic, country life. Linda Bassett draws everything together as the matriarch of the family, delivering a compelling performance that proves her character to be far more robust than Beatie might believe.
Many will know how the play ends, but I’m not going to give it away here. All that needs to be said is in the moment when Beatie finally learns to stand on her own two feet, her breakthrough speech imploring society to demand more is as strikingly relevant as any Twitter debate you will see today.