Regular productions of plays by Edward Albee, David Mamet, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams ensure that Londoners aren’t exactly starved of American drama. But asked to name the author of the Almeida theater’s presentation of “Awake and Sing!”, theatergoers could be forgiven for drawing a blank because his plays rarely appear here. Happily, the sheer dash and drive of Michael Attenborough’s exhilaratingly well-acted revival could change all that. The Clifford Odets revival starts here.
The scale of the small Almeida stage works wonders with a play quintessentially about a family piled up upon itself as it struggles through the Depression years. Claustrophobia is the keynote of Tim Shortall’s shabbily genteel, naturalistic set .
Having warring characters in such close confines with one another — not to mention the audience — brings an ideal immediacy .
Wearing an emasculating apron and clutching a wooden spoon, placid Myron Berger (nicely bemused Paul Jesson) wonders why he wandered into the living room. His benign meanderings contrast vividly with every other member of the household, all determined to rise above the chaos and make their physical — and vocal — presence felt.
At one point, Bessie (tiny but towering Stockard Channing) is faced with the possibility that her family is about to fall apart. Hennie’s (Jodie Whittaker) schlemiel of a husband (hilariously self-deluded and physically fraught John Lloyd Fillingham) has discovered he may not be the father of their child.
“We’ll have a glass and we’ll talk like civilized people,” says Bessie. As if. The Bergers aren’t big on listening.
No one in this family has ever known the luxury of a mixed opinion. Yet although their politics differ, the conviction with which they express zealously held views whenever they feel like it — i.e. all the time — binds them together.
That unity of sound and fury — they talk loud and fast to make themselves heard — is mirrored in Attenborough’s well-nigh perfect casting. Dressed in garments that have the appearance of real clothes rather than overly stylish costumes, the characters look uncannily like generations of the same family. And even though Channing is the company’s only American, even the accents match — a bizarrely rare event on London stages.
Despite playing the character in a wheelchair, John Rogan brings real beady-eyed zeal to Jacob, whose sense of revolutionary fervor is passed down to his grandson Ralph (Ben Turner, whose whole body seems to throb with frustrated ambition). The vigor of Jacob’s cantankerousness and his touching dedication to Ralph’s dreams ensure that Bessie’s enraged smashing of his beloved Caruso records is truly shocking.
Whittaker pulls off the considerable trick of exuding Hennie’s self-confidence while subtly allowing auds to see how groundless that is. Her truculent unhappiness helps add real pathos to her showdown with Moe Axelrod (Nigel Lindsay).
A bruiser in a wide-pinstripe suit, Lindsay is outstanding as resentment-filled Moe. On a permanent rolling boil of rage, he has a swagger that swats away sympathy, yet still manages to hold Hennie and auds in thrall. Their climactic confrontation is a real heart-in-mouth thriller.
Channing, previously only seen in London in “Six Degrees of Separation,” is a triumphant Bessie. Refusing to play to the gallery, she remains utterly convincing as the controlled and all-controlling matriarch. She appears filled with rightness of her world-view and is scathing of what she regards as her family’s fecklessness.
Not for nothing does Channing have a reputation as a comedienne. She feasts on Bessie’s over-egged Jewish exaggeration — “I could die from shame” — and her verdict on Sam — “Second fiddle? By me he’s not even in the orchestra” — is thrown away with whiplash timing.
It’s that ease with comic exaggeration that balances Attenborough’s production. It creates the space for Odets’ fervent poetry of hope that permeates the play. No matter how urgent and important the play was — and, to a degree, still is — the very last thing the writing needs is veneration. Mercifully, this fast-paced, immensely satisfying revival has literally no time for such misguided sanctification.