There is not a more charged silence on the London stage. As her husband Harry (Danny Webb) pretends to read, Sarah (Samantha Spiro) moves purposefully between the table and the kitchen sink, clearing away plates before sitting down to a cup of hard-earned tea, at which point their fury erupts. Arnold Wesker’s “Chicken Soup With Barley” made capital ‘P’ politics the heart of a fiercely argumentative family saga back in 1958. But the grounded passions of Dominic Cooke’s tremendous revival ensure its defense and dissection of idealism remain resonant.
Set in London’s East End in 1936, 1946 and 1956, the play contrasts the fortunes of a struggling Jewish family with the rise and fall of the socialist ideals to which they are originally wedded.
United in their politics in the opening scene, the entire family — and several friends — bustle around the tight squeeze of designer Ultz’s perfectly realized, shabby attic flat as they prepare to protest against the Fascists marching through the streets, a famously dangerous event in London history.
At a point at which the notion was not only viable but profoundly idealistic, they’re all dedicated members of the Communist Party. Even Harry, the least of proactive of men, is unfurling the red flag.
A scene later, with the fascists routed, they’re triumphant but all is not well. Finally, Sarah’s rage at her husband’s weakness boils over in a terrifying row heartbreakingly witnessed by her young son Ronnie who, in the second act a decade later, has grown up into a gangling teenager (Tom Rosenthal). He shares his mother’s ideals but considers himself a revolutionary through art — he will be a poet.
Although furious debate continues to dominate family occasions, cracks are widening. They may be living in better housing thanks to the work of the first postwar Socialist government, but the battle lines between increasingly feckless Harry and staunch matriarch Sarah are ever-increasingly fraught and fought.
In the third act, when both the family and socialist ideology are in tatters, Wesker’s writing rises to its fullest eloquence. With Sarah at the end of her tether caring for her stroke-victim husband, audiences are torn between wholly convincing arguments about hope versus practicality.
Although Wesker’s apportioning of different perspectives is dangerously neat at times, the performances have such vigor that only rarely do the characters sound like mouthpieces. Harry Peacock is a knockout as lumpish but ardent young Monty who, twenty years on, is the image of settled respectability as a proud Manchester greengrocer whose idealism is now long in the past.
Spiro — a double Olivier-winner for appearances in tuners, and too rarely seen in straight drama — keeps Sarah’s zealous maternal determination running through the center of the play like a steel rope. Hawk-eyed, she watches over and instructs everyone even as the odds mount up against her as her family move away from her politically, physically and emotionally.
She’s matched by Danny Webb’s ruthlessly unsentimental portrayal of Harry, who suffers a stroke in front of our eyes but never descends to playing for sympathy. For all their fighting, the compassion of the writing makes their shared plight truly affecting.
In another expert balancing act from Cooke (whose recent “Clybourne Park” was an awards magnet), the play races along. Right up to the final showdown, he ensures the arguments are permanently accompanied by engrossing family activity which powerfully expresses the centrality of politics to the bread and butter — or, rather, chicken soup — of daily life.