Writer: Arnold Wesker
Director: James MacDonald
Reviewer: Harry Stern
Roots may not have changed the world when it first appeared in the same way that John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger touched a national chord, but it’s still a fine example of the kitchen sink drama of the late 1950s. The burgeoning socialist politics of the era may seem a quaint and distant memory nowadays but the play remains a beautifully observed piece of work. It assembles the minutiae of an extended family’s day-to-day existence and interactions in order to offer a perspective on the stolid and unchanging world of rural England immediately after the War. Beatie Bryant may not have the crusading venom of the would-be enlightened Jimmy Porter but, crucially, she is an indomitable idealist who is not to be defeated in her search for enlightenment by her supinely downtrodden, yeoman family.
Historical time is a seamless continuum stretching back beyond conscious reach, always tantalising but always inaccessible. Somehow this play and its production, in the forensically authentic hands of director James MacDonald, offer its audience a direct lineage from, and tangible flavour of, 19th century English peasant life. Despite the upheaval of two World Wars, this corner of Wesker’s Norfolk is home to characters whose lives would have been recognised by the farm labourers of Charles Dickens, George Eliot and even Jane Austen. It is a remarkable achievement and provides a pan-generational canvas on which to paint a parochially small story against the background of great societal change.
From the moment it enters the auditorium, the audience is aware that it is being transported back to a time and rural place where life was slower, simpler and infinitely more Spartan than it is now. The kitchen, with its inevitable sink, dominates the stage. Bathed in gloom and orchestrated by the sounds of the country, the disorganised house is resolutely representative of the impoverished class of the post-war agricultural worker. Three acts of the play, played with two intervals, concern themselves with Beatie’s efforts to cajole, seduce, bully and beseech her family, and particularly her mother, to embrace a different type of world. They live a hard life without ease or amenity yet Beatie’s efforts to open their eyes to the new, revolutionary world of the socialist worker, as espoused by her beloved Ronnie, fall on deaf ears. Passively resistant to change, however hard the present, the family endure, patronize and tolerate Beatie’s excesses without ever showing the slightest inclination to join in the struggle.
The production and the acting are a joy. Jessica Raine is impressive as Beatie. She gives the character passion with equal measures of churlishness, playfulness and crusading zeal. It is a beautifully studied and balanced performance. The rest of the cast is uniformly strong with fine performances in particular from Lisa Ellis as Jenny and a hugely dignified, yet totally hidebound, characterisation of Beatie’s father Mr. Bryant by the exemplary Ian Gelder. But it is Linda Bassett as Mrs. Bryant who takes the breath away. It is a performance of huge integrity and massive depth. Enclosed in a carapace of habit she manages at the same time to repel all attempts at getting under that shell by her crusading daughter yet allows her enough access to encourage her. She plays with dignity hidebound resistance and real vulnerability. And she’s funny; by God she’s funny. Real people so often are.
Hildegard Bechtler’s set is a marvel of detail and Guy Hoare excels with his lighting of this slice of 1950s life. James MacDonald allows the actors simply to act and a really marvellous job they make of it. If the play’s denoument feels a little naïve and didactic nowadays it is a fault of time only and not of the production or its progenitors.