Donmar Warehouse, London

Theatre review: Roots - 'A meticulous and beautifully acted revival'

4.00

 

Roots, the central work in Arnold Wesker's 1950s trilogy, refuses to be rushed and keeps you waiting two and half hours for a turning-point. But the cumulative power of the piece is quietly devastating, as is decisively demonstrated now by this loving, meticulous and beautifully acted revival by James Macdonald. Written in the Norfolk dialect, the play tells the story of a young woman, Beatie Bryant, who returns to her glum family of farm labourers and tries to groom them for the impending visit of her “intellectual” London boyfriend Ronnie (the East End Jewish poet of Chicken Soup With Barley). She browbeats them with Ronnie's thoughts about art and politics by repeating them parrot-fashion and only finds her own voice in a climactic surge after a calamity the  audience may have started to anticipate.

Jessica Raine superbly captures both what is maddening and touching in Beatie's proselytising campaign. Full of gamine fervour, she jumps on chairs and gesticulates like a soap-box orator when spouting the boyfriend's pearls of wisdom but there's an undertow of vulnerability in the vehemence because she knows that she does not fully understand what she's ventriloquising. You want to shake her when she priggishly dismisses her mother's favourite popular song as third-rate pap. “Do [the words] make you feel better?” she asks. “Blust gal! That ent meant to be a laxative” is the pragmatic reply. But she also twists your heart when, trying to impress her mother with the joys of classical music records, she dances a hornpipe that turns into giddy lyrical twirls of shining, unguarded rapture.

Macdonald's unhurried, absorbing production is keenly alive to the play's poetic naturalism and to the rhythms of ordinary domestic existence. Not since the proletarian plays of D.H. Lawrence have so many low-key daily activities been woven into a drama. On Hildegard Bechtler's atmospherically lit sets, we see a sponge-cake being made, a floor being swept, a tin bath being arduously filled. In his published note to actors, Wesker was at pains to say that these Norfolk characters are not caricatures and that it's not disgust but annoyance that he feels -- with them and with himself. 

Linda Bassett is magnificently funny and moving as Mrs Bryant --- a dour stoic who raises laughs as she repetitively rabbits gloomy gossip, but who's in no need of help from a patronising daughter to be aware of the imprisoning monotony of her routine. And Macdonald's splendid ensemble make sure you see the glints of gruff humour and affection in the interactions of this limited and incurious bunch. Highly recommended.

To 30 November; 0844 871 7624

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