With the kitchen sink very much at the heart of the action, Arnold Wesker’s second in a trilogy of plays is every part the kitchen sink drama. Sandwiched inbetween his plays Chicken Soup with Barley and I’m talking about Jerusalem, Roots is the story of a Norfolk born girl, Beatie Bryant, who returns from London where she is full of love for her Jewish, socialist boyfriend, Ronnie. She bombards her family with her new found enjoyment of abstract paintings and the feelings in music, and forces them to reconcile for the sake of meeting Ronnie for the first time, but we see that her long term, idealist visions don’t quite work out.
Having grown up a few miles from where the play is set, I was staggered at the natural, acute realism of not only the notoriously hard accent and colloquialisms, but the genuine execution of the life that exists in the countryside. With women constantly on their feet and the men always off them, it provokes a few ideas about class and even more about the generation’s inheritance. None more so that when Beatie (played superbly by Call the Midwife actress Jessica Raine) confronts and scolds her mother (Linda Bassett) for not having more of an educational influence on her life, and worries that her family’s farming roots will embarrass her in front of worldly Ronnie. Linda Bassett and Ian Gelder are a strong, bickering couple, as well as Michael Jibson’s brooding portrayal of brother-in-law Jimmy and Lisa Ellis’s grateful Jenny.
Director James Macdonald has obviously constructed this production to be a stretch, dividing it into three acts and letting the dramatic tension build, as we work towards the crux of act three’s dinner. In parts it can feel a little bit too drawn out, but once you see Beatie’s final speech full of determination about the future, and the passion with which she batters her family with this socialist lecture, you can understand perfectly why the play is lengthened as such.
On a beautiful set designed by Hildegard Bechtler with much minute detail, and lit very purposefully by Guy Hoare, the action plays out within the Donmar with such clarity that it was hard to believe for a moment that I was in fact, in Central London and not the Norfolk Broads.
An atmospheric yet elaborate play despite its simple plotline, Roots is a great evening out at the theatre, showcasing a genius multitude of acting, but really, this production’s success lies in its naturalism and attention to detail.
Roots is playing The Donmar Warehouse until 30 November 2013. For more information and tickets see the Donmar Warehouse website. Photo by Stephen Cummiskey.