Theatre: Out of the frying pan...

Chips with Everything Lyttelton, RNT, London
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The irony of it can't be lost on Arnold Wesker. For years, he's smarted in public about his neglect by the theatrical establishment and has doggedly inveighed against the dominance of the director over the playwright, the mere interpreter over the originating artist. And then what happens? First, a major revival at the Royal Court of The Kitchen that results in most of the praise and attention falling on the director, Stephen Daldry. It was he who landed the accolades for his total revamp of the theatre space and for the skill with which he choreographed the mounting bustle in the play's microcosmic work community, turning the lunch-hour rush into an unforgettable Busby-Berkeley-meets-Dante vision of mechanised hell.

Now, in the Lyttelton, there's a splendid revival of Chips with Everything, Wesker's 1962 National Service play about a handsome, privileged young rebel (an excellent, to-the-manner-born Rupert Penry-Jones) who chooses to slum it in the ranks and stir up trouble, but who crosses back to his class when accused of siding with the proles because he can't stand real competition and wants to be "a Messiah to the masses".

As in The Kitchen, we're confronted here with a large-cast microcosm of disparate individuals forced to become a unit. Once again, some of the most powerful scenes are those in which group actions speak louder than words and where the director carries the responsibility; and, once again, in our praise for the wonderful precision and poetic fluidity of Howard Davies' staging, we're in danger of under-estimating Wesker's not inconsiderable contribution in having had the vision in the first place.

A delightful and wordless highlight is the conscripts' raid on the wirewalled coke yard to get some buckets of fuel for a late-night brew-up. All nippy, stockinged-feet stealth, the sequence involves numerous elaborate dartings across the stage with chairs and buckets as the men dodge the circuiting guard and help hoist one of their number over and back. As staged here, the sequence is a sublime mix of the balletic comedy of the Chinese circus and silent farce. This image of co-ordination is uplifting because of its chanciness and is thus in calculated contrast to the ambivalent spectacle, at once beautiful and queasy-making, of the motley group transformed into a perfectly drilled machine in the passing-out parade at the end - the actors showing off the square-bashing skills that they've picked up at Chelsea Barracks.

Well-nigh perfectly cast for physical types, Davies' production does the play proud in all its moods and modes from the naturalistic treatment of the mundanities and strains of womanless NAAFI socialising (the men unselfconsciously rock and rolling with each other in these very pre-Burning Blue times) to the magnificent expressionist treatment of the breakdown and break- out of the bullied incompetent, Smiler (Julian Kerridge). Here, it takes you a bit of time to realise that he has escaped, as he bashes against the wire mesh walls that dominate Rob Howell's striking, insistently prison-resembling set and as he trips over the interrogation lamps that extrude and dangle, like a forest of metallic trees, right down to the ground. And this is absolutely right, because Smiler's "freedom" is circumscribed and doomed.

It might seem particularly dubious to praise this production with the metaphor of a well-planned military operation. But that's the difference between National Service and the theatre. Like the hoofers in A Chorus Line, which also ends with an almost inhumanly well-drilled display, these actors have chosen to be there.

In rep. Booking: 0171-928 2252