THEATRE / The colour of money is blue: Awake and Sing]

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The Independent Culture
Oscar Wilde, who was a socialist of sorts, wrote with suave understatement of 'the effect of a steady income on thought'. Clifford Odets' Depression play, Awake and Sing] (1935), dramatises the effect of an unsteady income on love and family values. In the person of Bessie Berger, the dominant Jewish matriarch of a respectable Bronx tenement family, it lets you see how economic pressures and understandable fear of the future can warp a parent's instincts about what is best for the children.

In her offspring's own long- term interests, as she sees it, Bessie works to terminate her son Ralph's relationship with a poor orphan and to trick a hypersensitive immigrant, whom she deludedly views as a good financial bet, into marrying her daughter when she gets pregnant by another man. If the play is, in part, about how this pair revolt against the mother's well-meant but emotionally disastrous tyranny, it is also, less satisfactorily, concerned with the cross- generational dialectic between idealism and the American myth of material success.

The first thing you may feel watching Bill Alexander's interesting revival of the piece is that the vast main stage of the Birmingham Rep is a tricky space from which to convey a sense of an overcrowded apartment where people's nerves are frayed partly because one of them has to sleep on a daybed in the sitting-room and the dog can only be walked on the roof.

Nettie Edwards' set is striking, with jagged, fragmentary partition walls rendering all the rooms visible and the whole thing framed by a gaunt network of fire-escapes and neon signs. The apartment itself, though, looks perversely palatial, which hardly ministers to an atmosphere of urban oppressiveness.

If the flat is built on too grand a scale, it could be argued that June Brown's performance as Bessie errs in the opposite direction. There's a certain flamboyant finality about the gestures she uses to cancel opposition, but vocally she's far too strained to assert the right note of shrugging yet quite unconcessive despotism. The melodramatic moment when Bessie suddenly smashes her old father's Caruso records pales in power because we haven't been given sufficient impression of the banked- down frustration and bottled- up resentment at being misjudged that this outburst manically releases.

Elsewhere, some finely judged performances help compensate, in large measure, for the flustering fact that Awake and Sing] isn't nearly as conscious as it might be of the contradictions it throws up. Take the generation-skip rapport between young Ralph (Daniel Isaacs) and his idealistic grandfather (Harry Landis), who commits suicide so that the boy can collect the insurance money and try to put their shared dreams into practice. Where the play is rightly in two minds about the grandfather, whose ineffectual, more-talk-than-substance posture of socialist fervour Mr Landis movingly communicates, it seems, in its treatment of Ralph, wilfully unalert to the anomalies in the role it grants him as idealism's standard-bearer into the future.

On the one hand, he shrugs off getting jettisoned by his girl on the grounds that personal relationships have to be postponed until he and his like have created a world fit for them. On the other, he actively encourages his sister (Daphne Nayar) to abandon her baby and humiliated shrimp of a husband (excellent John McAndrew) so as to satisfy a romantic imperative with Corey Johnson's compellingly malcontent war veteran.

Ralph's tangled principles and his compromising inheritance make one pause. It's lucky that Isaacs is superb in the role, equipping the character with a youthful intensity and infectious unrest that reconciles you even to lines like 'Give me the earth and two hands. I'm strong . . .'

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