Educated Rita's older sister learns to speak for herself

THE BIGGEST no-show in drama is, of course, Beckett's Godot. A character who runs Godot a close second is Ronnie, the character whose failure to arrive turns out to be a godsend in disguise for the young heroine of Roots, Arnold Wesker's landmark 1959 play beautifully revived by John Retallack in a touring co-production between Oxford Stage Company and the Palace Theatre, Watford.

The unseen Ronnie has been living in London for three years with Beatie Bryant, whom he has taught to read the Guardian and pumped full of progress ideas she has not truly assimilated. Samantha Spiro splendidly projects the naive missionary ardour with which Beatie returns for a visit to her rural, working-class, family home in Norfolk. Tending to stand on chairs when she does so, she spouts Ronnie's thoughts at her relations, and it is possible that there is two knowingly subversive a note in Ms Spiros' gesticulating delivery of these pronouncements. The audience should begin to deduce that Ronnie is a bit of a pain (though not for the same reasons that Beatie's folks do): Beatie herself should be the largely unconscious agent of this.

Bovine, submissive, rejecting all attempts at high culture as "squit", the family are spectacularly in fertile ground for Ronnie's proxy seeds of wisdom. But Retallack, who is a master at coaxing superb ensemble playing from a company, does not fall

into the trap of presenting them from Beatie's point of view or from imaging that that point of view is inflexible. The actors here are excellent: You really feel that these people have a lifetime of shared memories, subterranean veins of humour and

affection running through the block of their stupidity. Their existence may be mind-numbing, incurious and repetitive but we see that there are saving graces.

Sally Mates is superb as the mother: the sad, doomed attempts to establish some intimacy with her runaway daughter and then the ugly triumphalism - the product of years of being cooped up and condescending to - when Ronnie writes to break off with Beatie. Ms Mates induces audience empathy with this woman, even as you deplore her tactics.

A play about the awakening of an independent female spirit, Roots has echoes of Ibsen's A Doll's House, in the defiant solo dance at the end of Act One, and pre-echoes of Educating Rita, in the resilient humour and inquisitiveness of its heroine.

Retallack stages the moment at the end when the beleaguered Beatie suddenly stops parroting Ronnie and finds her own voice ("I'm beginning... I'm beginning!) in a manner that is wonderfully true to its mix of realism and romanticism. A screen drops

between Beatie and her family at the aborted tea party, leaving her alone in a vast black and white projection of lonely Norfolk landscape, stretches flat and bare under a lowering sky. A new, difficult start and an image that is rightly both embarrassing and uplifting, gauche and glorious.

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