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A CurtainUp London London Review

"I fed you, I clothed you, I took you out to the sea." — Mrs Bryant
Linda Bassett as Mrs Bryant and Jessica Raine as Beattie (Photo: Stephen Cummiskey)
Following on from the first play in the trilogy, Chicken Soup with Barley which was shown at the Royal Court in mid 2011 (Review) comes the second play Roots. Whereas the first play was roughly about Arnold Wesker's mother and his East End London home, Roots is loosely based on Arnold's wife, Lady Dusty Wesker's home life in Norfolk. She was nicknamed Dusty because according to her suitor Arnold Wesker her hair was curly and golden, "like gold dust." Jessica Raine who plays Beattie, the youngest daughter of the Bryant family is a brunette but she captures the spirit of this working class girl brought up in a cultural desert who learns to grapple with political ideas, classical music and literature.

The first act is set in the home ofBeattie's elder sister, Jenny (Lisa Ellis) and brother in law Jimmy (Michael Jibson) home as Beattie pays a visit to them for two days before going on to see her parents. This sets the scene as Beattie is full of her boyfriend Ronnie's ideas and many of her sentences start with "Ronnie says . . ." or "Ronnie thinks . . ." Beattie shows her hard working nature as she tidies and organises Jenny's house while they introduce their family. We hear what a skinflint their father is as they discuss the meagre amount of housekeeping he allows their mother. We also meet Stan Mann (David Burke) a likeable elderly neighbour, who flirts outrageously with the younger women.

In act two, we switch to the Bryants' house where the wonderful Linda Bassett is carrying potatoes in her apron revealing just above her knee, the top of a rolled up right stocking. Stan Mann drops in and flirts with Mrs Bryant. Beattie takes her mother to task for her conversation based on local events, about who is ill or has died or the mundane, like, "There goes the 1.30 bus to Diss". Beattie has been taught by Ronnie to appreciate classical music and tries to introduce her mother to more than sentimental popular love songs. When she tries to bake a cake for her sister, her father (Ian Gelder) forbids the use of his electricity. We are shocked by his miserly behaviour although he may also have to be careful because he earns very little as a farm labourer. But we can laugh as he later deliberately turns off the standard lamp plunging everyone into near darkness.

Some of Arnold Wesker's play made me feel uncomfortable as he appears to be condemning the lack of ambition of the Norfolk labouring classes. Even Beattie's conversations telling her mother what to say, and not to say, in front of Ronnie made me feel that she undervalued her own family in relation to Ronnie's family. Knowing the real Dusty, I find this hard to believe, unless of course if it were Arnold telling her what to do and the folly of youth and first love or indeed the playwright's artistic licence.

The final act sees the whole family wearing their Sunday Best, the table laid with trifle and culinary treats, gathered to welcome Ronnie. As well as Jimmy and Jenny, their brother Frank (Carl Prekopp) is there with his wife Pearl (Emma Stansfield). We see Frank is not earning his living from the land. There is much to amuse in all three acts but this third act feels the most powerful as it sees the culmination of Beattie's confidence as she starts to find her own voice through an impassioned speech about working class culture and its inadequacy to create a climate of change.

Hildegarde Bechtler's Norfolk kitchen sets have a bare sink and a few sticks of furniture and these families live on the breadline.

James Macdonald gets accurate and authentic performances from his cast. Jessica Raine bubbles with energy and passion for Beattie's adopted ideas and ideals and her "moral maze" story is posed with a beautifully animated involvement. Linda Bassett, as her mother has the most perfect timing in gently reproaching her youngest child or just plain ignoring her. We see the limitations of Mrs Bryant's world but we do not condemn her whilst at the same time admiring her daughter's spirit and resilience in the face of disappointment. For your children to be educated beyond your own education is of course, progress.

What Roots does is to convince us that behind every great playwright there is a good woman (or partner).

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Written by Arnold Wesker
Directed by James Macdonald

Starring: Jessica Raine, Linda Bassett, David Burke, Lisa Ellis, Michael Jibson
With: Ian Gelder, Nic Jackman, Carl Prekopp, Emma Stansfield
Designed by Hildegarde Bechtler
Music: Claire van Kempen
Lighting: Guy Hoare
Sound: Ian Dickinson for Autograph
Running time: Two hours 40 minutes with two intervals
Box Office: 0844 871 7624
Booking to 30th November 2013
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 8th October 2013 performance at the Donmar Warehouse, 41 Earlham Street London WC2H 9LX (Tube: Covent Garden)

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