Jo Combes's production of Arnold Wesker's Roots for the Royal Exchange displays the same artful lightness of touch that the playwright needed as a pastry chef, before he embarked on what is now known as the Wesker Trilogy 50 years ago.
This is the story of Beatie Bryant (Claire Brown), who blossoms from an uneducated working-class girl into a woman able to express herself in a world of which she desperately wants to be a part. Those who don't know her tale may spend time, like Beatie's family, trying to imagine her oft-quoted, intellectual lover, Ronnie Kahn – the son from Wesker's previous play, Chicken Soup with Barley. Waiting for Rono is a mug's game, however, no matter how cunningly understated he is played here.
Liz Ascroft's design, a cluttered, period-piece room – the set nothing much but a kitchen sink – conjures an isolated cottage, surrounded by the reed beds of the Fens stretching far beyond its walls. The one living room doubles, confusingly, as the home of Mother Bryant and her elder daughter Jenny (Caroline Devlin). As we encounter them, each is trapped in a wearying life that seems to be passing in slow motion, every movement and noise magnified by the desperate boredom of long hours.
Returning to her Norfolk roots from London, the younger daughter, Beatie, passes the time before the eagerly awaited arrival of Ronnie boisterously cajoling her siblings and parents. With a jarring accent that veers dangerously between continents, far less counties, she nags her brother-in-law for his reluctance to question unfair working practices, shrilly resents her father's penny-pinching and regales them all with stories about the Jewish boy from whom she has discovered new ideas – as well as how to bake pastries.
Full of second-hand socialism and seduced by the limitless possibilities that art and classical music provide, Beatie berates her insular relations, despairing of their stagnant existence and contentment with second-hand pop songs and gossip.
In the part created in 1959 by Joan Plowright – and, in the Nineties television production, taken by Jane Horrocks – the promising young actress Claire Brown makes a strong impression as the irrepressible, frustrated Beatie. Stripping off and luxuriating in the family's tin bath, Brown's assuredness is highlighted by the discomfiture of her character's hidebound mother, Mrs Bryant (Denise Black). When, to the jaunty strains of the Farandole from Bizet's L'Arlésienne Suites, Beatie tries to broaden her mother's horizons, the young woman's vivacity is so infectious as to make you want to get up and join the dance.
Wearing her overalls like a second skin, Black gives a strong performance, rooted in menial drudgery and displaying a stubbornly resigned acceptance of her character's paltry lot. Emotions are firmly repressed around here. Each person's refusal to engage with issues and with each other drives Beatie to distraction and Brown to a dazzling performance in her final, liberating speech.
But Combes never allows Brown to swamp the no-less-finely detailed, if occasionally over-enthusiastic performances of the rest of the cast. John Cording as the neighbour on his last legs – still clinging to any spark of life he can grasp – sneezes with such vehemence that members of the audience on the nearby banquettes must fear that they may catch his virulent cold.
In this bleakly remote existence, where time is marked out by the distant sound of the bus, the arrival of the postman and minute changes in the soil, where tittle-tattle, indigestion and tabloid jokes are the extent of conversation, you find yourself willing Beatie to break free from her roots – with or without Ronnie.
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