Some 53 years after its first appearance at the Royal Court, the opening play in Arnold Wesker’s famous trilogy returns and, if Dominic Cooke’s revival is anything to go by, the playwright’s reputation as a bit of a bore is well-deserved. An eloquent bore, with a knack of pitting the domestic against the universal, but a snooze-inducer nonetheless.
Cooke paces the play expertly, with dramatic turns of tempo and huge holes of silence amidst endless speechifying, and he’s blessed with a superb cast, but it only goes some way towards lifting the play out of the doldrums.
Wesker uses a huge canvas, taking us from 1936, when Mosley’s blackshirts prowl the streets and war rages in Spain, through to the end of 1956, the era of Suez and the Hungarian revolution. All the while, endless cups of tea are brewed as mother hen Sarah Kahn administers succor to her wayward household.
We see a family bicker and struggle against the odds and, in the process, symbolize idealogical decline, just as we do with that other state-of-the-nation play of the same era The Entertainer. But Wesker’s more prosaic offering lacks the potent metaphor of Osborne’s run-down theatrical performer.
The bigger picture is reflected in the disintegration of the Kahns, an impoverished East End Jewish family who display their politics on their sleeves and rush into the streets waving red flags and rolling pins. Sarah (in a wonderfully committed performance by Samantha Spiro) is the one who stays constant to her communist beliefs, while everyone else’s idealism slips away as the years flow by. Danny Webb is tremendous as the wavering father figure, melting away before our eyes, paralysed metaphorically by impassivity to begin with and then literally by two strokes which leave him incontinent and increasingly unable to express himself. Tom Rosenthal’s verbally adept younger son Ronnie, has no such trouble, telling us, and how, what he feels at every moment.
What’s so difficult with Wesker’s play is to summon up any real feeling for the characters. “If you don’t care, you’ll die,” we’re told but even the valiant Sarah who sees off every challenge in her need to balance human love with the will to fight, fails to ignite any real sympathy.
The time is ripe for a re-assessment of Wesker (the National Theatre revives The Kitchen later in the year) but I wonder if looking to the wealth of recent, unperformed works might be more fruitful than re-visiting this hoary old piece.