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Chicken Soup with Barley
Tricycle Theatre, London


Rhona Foulis
posted 20 October 2005

Arnold Wesker's second play, written in 1959, takes its autobiographical cue from his politically minded Jewish family and their experiences in London's East End. Spread over three decades, Chicken Soup with Barley explores and challenges socialist ideologies, as the family grows up and grows apart. By focusing on the family unit, Wesker brings political theatre home, with a domestic setting and traditional, naturalistic form. A far cry from the current trend in verbatim political theatre, but does Chicken Soup still speak to audiences today?

We first meet the family and their 'comrades' in 1936, on the day of the anti-fascist protests in the East End. There is a fever of excitement, anticipation and resolution, as the comrades prepare to march against the BUF. Against the dusky colours of this dingy flat, father Harry brandishes a Communist flag, illuminating the room with its striking red. But from the outset of the play, we observe the chinks and complexities in their political ideologies. Dave is 'a pacifist really', but considers joining the International Brigades to fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War. Young Monty is full of anger against the BUF, hungry for the fight, but doesn't understand exactly what he's fighting for. And Harry spends most of the march sheltering at his mother's house, drinking tea. All are unhappy with their lot, but seem increasingly unable to organise themselves into action. 'You have to start with love', Sarah offers, 'How can you talk about socialism otherwise?' Despite accusations of political ignorance, Sarah is the only character that remains politically active and animated throughout the play.

Interestingly for a 1950s play, Chicken Soup gives the strongest roles to its women: wife and mother Sarah is our protagonist; her perspective drives the play and its political debate. Sarah provides domestic warmth and chicken soup-nourishment to her comrades, always looking after her house guests and over-feeding them around her table. But the solidarity that we witness in the first act turns sour: as the family begins to fragment, symbiotically, so do political allegiances. Gradually, we learn of Harry and Sarah's marital unhappiness; daughter Ada then loses heart, becoming an embittered intellectual; and son Ronnie pities his failure of a father, too apathetic and cowardly to fight.

One by one, the comrades become disillusioned by their former values: they cannot maintain faith either in each other or in socialism, as Wesker suggests a correlation between political and human strength. The community of comrades is lost: in the final act, Harry comments that he doesn't know his neighbours; and, despite her yearning for company, Sarah's visitors pay only dutiful visits. Towards the end of the play, having nursed her debilitated husband to bed, Sarah returns to a bare living room and takes in its empty expanse through a slow breath. Like her emotional loneliness, Sarah is politically isolated in her constant ambition: playing a game of cards at the table, she begins to complain about the NHS, but is hushed by the others - no one is listening anymore.

The ending is tinged with dissolution, tempered by hope. Harry exclaimed in act one, 'Show people what Communism means and they see life, a future', but as he predicted, 'not in our lifetime'. Sarah cries to her now indifferent son that he must remember her politics, to rescue her life from vanity; almost heroically, she protests that just because her Communist ideologies failed doesn't mean they are untrue. In a final, rousing monologue, Sarah simply concludes, 'If you don't care, you die', just like the broken spirit of her husband and daughter. In its temporal expanse, Chicken Soup highlights the importance both of human faith and political ambition, if not now, then for another generation.

Nottingham Playhouse's production remains faithful to Wesker's words, with Dawn Allsopp's dusky design carrying us through the ages of pre- and post-war London. Giles Croft elicits fine performances from his leading ladies: Rachel Edwards and Caroline Lennon both deliver spot-on performances as acerbic Ada and sharp Cessie. The same cannot be said for Simon Schatzberger as Harry, or for a glib Sam Talbot as Ronnie, but I wonder whether their marginal male roles gave the actors much scope anyway. It is Shona Morris's warm but desperate Sarah that really punches to the heart of Wesker's political commitment. Morris proves that, though rarely produced, Chicken Soup's themes of political apathy, disenfranchisement and familial disintegration still resonate for a modern audience. Croft's production reminds us of the importance of the struggle.


Till 19 November 2005.

 

 
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