Keeping the Faith

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Review of 'Chicken Soup with Barley' by Arnold Wesker, Tricycle Theatre

In the late 1950s a new wave of young, radical dramatists took British theatre by storm, challenging the conventional, complacent type of drama that dominated the stage with plays that explored at a deeper level the distortion of human relationships by our society, and confronting head-on the key political issues of the day. This group of dramatists included John Arden, John Osborne, Harold Pinter and Arnold Wesker.

Chicken Soup with Barley - the first play in the Wesker trilogy - produced in 1958, sweeps across the turbulent years from 1936 to 1956, charting the landmark changes in British politics and society through the fortunes of an East End Jewish Communist family. In a subtle intertwining of the personal and the political, Wesker takes us from the heroic, idealistic 1930s, past the hopeful, if short-lived, optimism of the immediate postwar years, through to the final disillusion in Communist ideals following the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution by Soviet tanks in 1956.

In Act One (1936), the matriarchal Sarah, her ineffectual husband Harry, and their young children Ronnie and Ada are steeped in poverty, but they and their extended kin and close comrades cope with it through their commitment to and belief in the Communist Party. The family ecstatically celebrate their victory in preventing Mosley's fascists from marching through Cable Street.

Act Two, set in the afterglow of Labour's 1945 historic landslide victory over Churchill's Tories, reveals the family slightly better off but starting to break up with their move to a Hackney council flat. Daughter Ada is tired of waiting for husband Dave to return from 18 months with the International Brigade in Spain and six years fighting in the Second World War. She has become cynical about radical politics and plans to escape the urban jungle by retreating to rural Norfolk.

Act Three marks the final collapse of the Communist ideals of so many - 'the god that failed' - as Ronnie returns from working in Paris to confront his mother about the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution. For the first time we see her in crisis: 'You think it doesn't hurt me - the news about Hungary?' - but she is inspirational in her refusal to abandon her faith in the capacity of human beings to build a better world: 'There will always be human beings, and as long as there are, there will always be the idea of brotherhood.'

The enduring strength of Wesker's play is his ability to take us on a journey across the landscape of two crucial decades of British 20th century history through characters that we warm to and believe in. Sarah is the powerful, not to say domineering, Jewish mother, who regularly puts down her feckless husband, and is constantly trying to feed everyone. But she is also a heroine whose loyalty and devotion hold the family together in the face of massive adversity - poverty and Harry's immobility following two strokes - and who steadfastly refuses to renounce her political commitment. The play is thus also a metaphor about the struggle to maintain one's political faith at a time when many are losing theirs and is, therefore, reminiscent of the 1980s. Nevertheless, it is relevant to the current period of growing radicalisation, since it points up the alternative of mass mobilisation which a new generation of activists is rediscovering as the antidote to both Stalinism and social democracy.

This new production by Giles Croft is, therefore, a timely revival of Wesker's ground-breaking play. It is dynamic and pacy, with a fine cast, including Shona Morris as Sarah, Simon Schatzberger as Harry, Rachel Edwards as Ada and Sam Talbot as Ronnie.