Danny Webb as Harry Kahn, Samantha Spiro as Sarah Kahn
I used to work with a man who had it all. He was a billionaire. He had homes all around the world. He could buy whatever he chose. He, however, had no real friends. He had no wife to share his fortune with. He had no children. Most of all, however, he was mean of spirit and so he had nothing.
Chicken Soup with Barley, currently playing at The Royal Court Theatre, is the first in a trilogy that deals with people who have it all yet have nothing.
Written by Arnold Wesker and directed by Dominic Cooke, Chicken Soup with Barley covers the period from 1936 to 1956. The story centres on a feisty Communist, Sarah Kahn (superbly played by Samantha Spiro), and her shirking husband, Harry (Danny Webb).
In the twenty-year period, we see a family in turmoil as first Moseley’s fascists march in London through to the Hungarian revolution beginning to stir. Our protagonist’s answer to any problem though is to boil the kettle.
Sarah, a fiery and passionate matriach, values the family and “The Party” most. As the play progresses those around become disillusioned with both and leave her. She pours another cup of tea.
You “carry on your life the same as always and no one should say anything” Sarah disappointedly states at one point. Her husband simply responds: “Leave me alone.” More tea is consumed.
At a time of political apathy in the UK, the play is especially relevant. The initial hopes of this Jewish family for the rise of Communism are rather similar to those of the Arabs this spring. Alongside hope comes sacrifice and often failure.
Wesker cleverly shows three forms of Communism in this play. We see it’s instinctive form in that of Sarah. In her son Ronnie (Tom Rosenthal), we get a more romantic attitude to it. Their sister-in-law, Cissie (Alexis Zegerman), is far more pragmatic.
Reviewers say that Spiro’s portrayal of Sarah is “beyond praise” and I have to agree. Harry’s decline from a work-shy layabout to a withered old man is brilliantly executed by Webb. Rosenthal matches this superbly charting the onset of disappointment for Ronnie excellently.
“You can’t alter people. You can only offer them love and hope they will accept it” is the lesson we leave the theatre having learnt.
“You’ve got to care or you’ll die,” Sarah concludes.
Chicken Soup with Barley runs until Saturday 9th July at The Royal Court Theatre, Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Sloane Square, London, SW1. Telephone: +44 (0) 20 7565 5000.
Tickets: £28, £20, £12. Mondays: All seats £10.
For more information see http://www.royalcourttheatre.com/whats-on/chicken-soup-with-barley