Chicken Soup With Barley, Playhouse, Nottingham

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The Independent Culture

Arnold Wesker was in his mid-twenties when he wrote Chicken Soup with Barley, four years before Chips with Everything sealed his reputation - alongside John Osborne's - as one of Britain's most cutting-edge post-war playwrights.

Arnold Wesker was in his mid-twenties when he wrote Chicken Soup with Barley, four years before Chips with Everything sealed his reputation - alongside John Osborne's - as one of Britain's most cutting-edge post-war playwrights.

Like Roots and I'm Talking about Jerusalem, which completed the trilogy, Chicken Soup is set in the context of his own family's political engagement, during the 1930s anti-Fascism riots, the optimism of the Attlee reforms, the emergence of a Jewish state, the traumatic revelations about Stalin in the Khruschev 20th Party Congress speech and the crushing of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.

In retrospect, it comes across as an enormously promising stage piece. Why only promising? In Giles Croft's faithful new staging for Nottingham Playhouse, the play yields its goodies in fits and starts. The first act - full of the fitful events of 1936, in which the tramping of jackboots is audible from the East End basement flat where the Jewish Kahn family lives - is splendidly energised by a clutch of unlikely left-wing activists (played by Daniel Rabin, Russell Bentley, Robert Benfield). Even the flag-waving father figure, Harry (Simon Schatzberger) is almost energised into political engagement, before cowardice and fecklessness - and possibly better judgement - get the better of him.

He stands in stark contrast to his wife, the tea-making mother figure, Sarah (forcefully played by Shona Morris), whose unflinching commitment to Communism we are finally apprised of in her set-piece exchange with her by-now grown-up son, Ronnie (a convincing Nitzan Sharron) It is she who thrusts the flag into Harry's hand. Yet the unnecessary delay to this revealing outburst - his mother's political blindness being the reason Wesker put pen to paper - shears the play of real import for much of its middle section.

Rather, we have a tragicomedy of social realism, centred on the mother's nagging, the husband's enjoyably feeble excuses and the attempts of son, daughter and friends (Daniel Rabin's Monty supplies a first-class vignette) to make sense of either. The most joyous scene is a deliciously detailed card game,which offers a chance for several characters (especially Benfield's Uncle Hymie) to come alive. The comedy could be better; some of the awkward silences have a touch of the amateur about them.

Croft's submission to text (always well delivered) means few dramatic surprises. Wesker's remarkable prescience is best illustrated in a glorious, infuriated outburst by the politically disillusioned daughter, Ada (played by Rachel Edwards). "I don't believe in the right to organise people. And I 'm not sure I love them enough to want to organise them... What audacity tells you you can harbour a billion people in a theory? O God in heaven, save me from the claptrap of a halfpenny pamphlet."

To 23 April (0115-941 9419)

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