“The whole stinkin’ commercial world insults us and we don’t care a damn”
Jessica Raine may have captured the nation’s heart as the star of BBC1’s Call The Midwife but those in the know have been watching her onstage for a goodly while, I first saw her back in 2009 in Punk Rock and have been captivated ever since. Roots sees her take the leading role of Beatie in the middle part of Arnold Wesker’s working class trilogy (Chicken Soup with Barley is the first and I’ve yet to see the third, I’m Talking About Jerusalem) and though very much a slow-burner, James Macdonald’s highly naturalistic production steadily builds into something magically affecting.
It’s 1958 and Norfolk girl Beatie Bryant is back home for a visit, full of love and enthusiasm for both her new abode London and her new beau Ronnie (who is a character in Chicken Soup…). He’s a committed socialist and has filled her head with a brand new world of ideals and inspiration but as she tries to explain and elucidate her new-found truths to her extended family, in anticipation of a big dinner party where Ronnie will be unveiled, she discovers the difficulties in preaching to an audience unwilling to hear.
For though Beatie has been dazzled by the possibilities of the new, they are rooted firmly in the traditions of the old. Their lives are tough, often back-breakingly so as men struggle to eke out a living toiling in the fields, and characterised by the rhythms of their domestic routines. And this is what is so effective about this production, what initially seems somewhat dull – Beatie goes through a whole array of chores as she visits her sister’s home in the first act and then again at her mother’s in the second – is actually rich and poignant, full of the very substance of rural life.
Hildegard Bechtler’s minutely detailed set is the perfect conduit, replete with small touches that recalled the kitchens of my grandparents and even my parents (they still have a rack that hangs over the cooker). But it is the performances that make it – Raine slowly blossoming into the realisation that she has her own journey to take through life, Emma Stansfield’s matter-of-fact sister is expertly realised and Linda Bassett provides an acting tour-de-force as the mother who can convey just as much, if not more, whilst peeling potatoes or living vicariously through the bus timetable than she does through doling out, and receiving, the brutal realities of life.