Review: Brass the Musical, Union Theatre

Brass the Musical at the Union Theatre is a powerfully moving celebration of sacrifices made, of service offered, of music itself – beautifully done

“Just until our lads come back”

There’s a neat symmetry to the life of Brass the Musical thus far. Originally commissioned by the National Youth Music Theatre to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, its professional London premiere now marks the Armistice Centenary. Benjamin Till’s musical, with additional lyrics from Nathan Taylor and Sir Arnold Wesker, thus serves as a powerful tribute to those who served, both at home and on the frontline.

What is particularly gorgeous about Brass is how it is suffused with the joy of music. Its power to bring people together (as in the characterful ‘Forming a Band’), its potential to lift spirits (the marvelous storytelling of ‘Whistle Billy’), its ability to express something deeper beyond just words (the haunting vocalese at the trenches). And as an expression of the musical theatre form, it works beautifully in deepening an already profoundly moving piece of history.  Continue reading “Review: Brass the Musical, Union Theatre”

Review: Roots, Donmar Warehouse

“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.  Continue reading “Review: Roots, Donmar Warehouse”

Review: The Kitchen, National Theatre

“What is there more?”

The Kitchen was one of Arnold Wesker’s first plays and follows on from the Royal Court’s well-received (if not by me) Chicken Soup with Barley in a year which has been something of a revival for Wesker. Written in 1959 and inspired by his own experiences of working in the catering industry, it is set in 1957 in the basement kitchen of a large London restaurant, the Tivoli. The dynamics of a swirling multi-cultural mass of chefs, waitresses and kitchen porters are exposed as they slowly build to the mad rush of a huge lunchtime service. Playing in the Olivier at the National Theatre, this was a late preview performance.

Director Bijan Sheibani has assembled a cast of 30 who rush about Giles Cadle’s circular kitchen set with increasing fervour as prep turns into service and the banter with all its personal enmities, tribal groupings and rivalries between kitchen staff and dining-room staff becomes increasingly fraught, and of course largely forgotten as the rush passes and the calm of the afternoon allows for a more reflective atmosphere. The less intense evening service provides a final act is no less dramatic though as slow burning stories finally explode. Continue reading “Review: The Kitchen, National Theatre”

Review: Chicken Soup with Barley, Royal Court

“If you don’t care, you’ll die”

A playwright who hasn’t received much attention in years of late, Arnold Wesker finds two of his plays about to receive major revivals in London: Chicken Soup with Barley here at the Royal Court, where it first played in 1958 and The Kitchen will open later this year at the National Theatre. Chicken Soup… follows the disintegration of an East End Jewish family over a twenty year period but simultaneously the collapse of the Communist ideals that they and their friends espouse, starting with the Cable Street Riots in 1936 and revisiting them just after the war has finished and again in 1956 and the beginnings of the Hungarian Revolution.

At the heart of the play and barely off the stage, Samantha Spiro is never less than sparkling as Sarah, at once the Jewish mother forever making cups of tea and sandwiches for her brood as they rally round her, singing songs, making speeches and dreaming of a bright future, and also this political stalwart fiercely committed to her Socialist ideals even as others peel away from her magnetic influence and the ideal world they dreamed of crumbles away. It is her life that epitomises the Socialist dream and her passionate defence of the way she has lived her life, although coming too late in the play, is a stunning moment which ends the play powerfully. As her feckless husband, Danny Webb gives an equally affecting performance of a man who feels he has failed at life and is constantly reminded of the fact by his nagging wife and then later his children: he way he retreats into himself as illness then kicks in is often just too hard to watch. Continue reading “Review: Chicken Soup with Barley, Royal Court”