Monday, 14 October 2013

Review: Roots, Donmar Warehouse

“The whole stinkin' commercial world insults us and we don't care a damn”

Jessica Raine may have captured the nation’s heart as the star of BBC1’s Call The Midwife but those in the know have been watching her onstage for a goodly while, I first saw her back in 2009 in Punk Rock and have been captivated ever since. Roots sees her take the leading role of Beatie in the middle part of Arnold Wesker’s working class trilogy (Chicken Soup with Barley is the first and I’ve yet to see the third, I’m Talking About Jerusalem) and though very much a slow-burner, James Macdonald’s highly naturalistic production steadily builds into something magically affecting. 

It’s 1958 and Norfolk girl Beatie Bryant is back home for a visit, full of love and enthusiasm for both her new abode London and her new beau Ronnie (who is a character in Chicken Soup…). He’s a committed socialist and has filled her head with a brand new world of ideals and inspiration but as she tries to explain and elucidate her new-found truths to her extended family, in anticipation of a big dinner party where Ronnie will be unveiled, she discovers the difficulties in preaching to an audience unwilling to hear. 

For though Beatie has been dazzled by the possibilities of the new, they are rooted firmly in the traditions of the old. Their lives are tough, often back-breakingly so as men struggle to eke out a living toiling in the fields, and characterised by the rhythms of their domestic routines. And this is what is so effective about this production, what initially seems somewhat dull - Beatie goes through a whole array of chores as she visits her sister’s home in the first act and then again at her mother’s in the second – is actually rich and poignant, full of the very substance of rural life. 

Hildegard Bechtler’s minutely detailed set is the perfect conduit, replete with small touches that recalled the kitchens of my grandparents and even my parents (they still have a rack that hangs over the cooker). But it is the performances that make it – Raine slowly blossoming into the realisation that she has her own journey to take through life, Emma Stansfield’s matter-of-fact sister is expertly realised and Linda Bassett provides an acting tour-de-force as the mother who can convey just as much, if not more, whilst peeling potatoes or living vicariously through the bus timetable than she does through doling out, and receiving, the brutal realities of life. 

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes (with 2 intervals)
Booking until 30th November

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Saw Roots last night at the Donmar. More pointless than poignant. Nearly three hours and two intervals to get to the punch line that we all knew was coming in the first ten minutes. Raines performance of Beatie Bryant was less soulful character drawing in her sadness frustration, fear and verve than an overacted series of exclamations more akin to a precocious, loud annoying brat. Not one character was allowed to develop into someone with which we had a special feeling or affinity. They, as was the set, were simply stereotypes we could find at the most banal impersonation comedy theatre.

Blue Baby said...

Couldn't agree less with the previous poster. A lovely production of a deeply profound and prescient play. Raine & Bassett are tremendous

Ian said...

Each to their own eh, Anonymous, though I'd be careful of projecting your own experience onto everyone. I did find affinity with aspects of Beatie's experience - the major shift of moving from rural to urban life, the thrill of making a connection with someone with a much more established view on the world and the difficulties in extricating oneself from it to find one's own voice... But you're allowed to disagree.
On another note, if you can find me a set dressed with that level of detailed attention anywhere else in London at the moment, then please do tell me.